Tribute

Wow, what a planet!

~Mary Ann Brittain, May 20, 1942 – March 17, 2019

I’m going to post something a little different this morning. A brief tribute to my dear friend and mentor, Mary Ann Brittain. We attended her memorial yesterday at her beloved Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. It was a beautiful, hopeful, memorial to one of the most amazing people I have ever known. She was full of grace, kindness, laughter, and had an endless curiosity about the natural world (and all another aspects of the world we live in). In looking for some images to include, I sadly realized that most are in the files of the museum as digitized slides from my early years at that amazing institution. So, I’ll just share a couple I still have (those who know me, know I have few people pictures among my thousands of images, and this is one of those times I regret that). And I will only share a tiny bit of Mary Ann’s impact on me this morning (to tell it all, would require a book, a book that is still being written).

I met Mary Ann while I was working as a naturalist/educator for NC State Parks. Back then, we were sometimes stationed at popular parks far from our usual station on busy holidays to serve as roving interpreters or to provide programs to visitors. I was at Mount Mitchell State Park one Fourth of July when this woman approached me and asked about the skeletons of fir trees scattered across the mountain. Scientists were discussing the impacts of acid deposition on high elevation forests in the southeast at that time and the impacts of the introduced Balsam Woolly Adelgid as a factor in the die-offs of Fraser Firs. But, many visitors assumed there had been a fire. After discussing this with Mary Ann, she emphatically said we should be interpreting the science to the public to make them more aware of the issues. What could I say? I had to agree. So, we discussed it back in Raleigh and over the next several months a display was developed and installed on Mount Mitchell about “What’s Killing the Trees?”.

privy-front

My career with Mary Ann began with a call about this…

I don’t remember the exact timeline, but some months after that, I got a call from Mary Ann. We chatted for a moment about our meeting at Mount Mitchell, and then she got to the reason for her call. She had a farm in Franklin County with a small cottage on it as a weekend retreat, and she needed to build an outhouse up there. She had pondered who might have plans for an outhouse. State Parks has outhouses, she thought. Who did she know in state parks? That guy she met at Mount Mitchell (me). During the conversation, she mentioned the potential for hiring an education position at the museum. Thus began my 24 years in the best job that state government has to offer (and she got her plans for an outhouse).

I put this in her tribute only because Mary Ann loved to laugh, and helped everyone around her to find the humor in our daily lives. Her friends and family shared many stories yesterday about the crazy shenanigans that Mary Ann got us all involved in over the years.

MAB

“Laugh often”, a life lesson she shared

She was a woman of vision (my nickname for her was “The Force”) and worked tirelessly to make good ideas into reality. Her background in social work helped shape her amazing abilities at bringing groups of people together for a common purpose, be it reaching across social barriers, or helping you get outside of your comfort zone to see the world with a new set of eyes. All of her former museum co-workers smiled as we entered the church yesterday and saw a flip chart with instructions to make a name tag for the service. As our friend, Liz, mentioned in her tribute to Mary Ann yesterday, if only the pews could have been arranged in a circle…the classic arrangement for seating a group of people and classic Mary Ann.

UTOTES school

Habitat components at a UTOTES school

When I started at the museum, I went with Mary Ann all over the state for 3-hour workshops that took teachers outside the classroom walls to get them excited about using plants and animals to teach all sorts of subjects. She lamented the fact that 3 hours just wasn’t enough time to make a real difference, so she came up with the idea for a program to provide teachers with workshops at their schools over the course of many months. After convincing some people in the state’s education department of the value of such a plan, the successful UTOTES (Using The Outdoors to Teach Experiential Science) program was born with a huge NSF grant. Thousands of teachers have now been through the program, helping to introduce tens of thousands of NC students to the wonders of nature with the simple idea of exploring and teaching outdoors. I like to think that it has helped shift the views of a lot of people for the need to learn about, care about, and help conserve the world we live in. The signs shown below went up at UTOTES schools after teachers took their students outdoors to learn about some common schoolyard critters we had shared in the workshops. To me, it is just one example of how powerful direct experience with nature can be. When observed closely, even the sometimes unloved wild creatures can be beautiful and fascinating, and those experiences can foster an understanding and appreciation for the entire natural world.

dirt dauber preserve

Perhaps the only mud dauber preserve in the state

spider sanctuary

This sign went up after sharing a math activity involving spritzing  (with water) the spider webs in the bushes around the school. The kids fell in love with the diversity of spiders they found.

Years before UTOTES, she had started taking educators to amazing natural areas from NC to Belize to get them turned on to the natural world. She believed that sometimes it requires taking people to far-away places to help them understand the beauty in their own backyards.

early Belize

Mary Ann, with the first museum educator group to go to Belize, 1987

The Educators of Excellence program has profoundly influenced hundreds of teachers across the state and still lives on at the Museum, over 30 years after it began.

ynp

Wolf-watching at sunrise, Yellowstone (another Educator of Excellence program that continues to influence teachers and their students)

Several years ago, after her husband, Bill, died, she decided to write some words for her own eventual obituary. Here is a selection of those powerful words shared at the service yesterday…

The purpose of life is not to be happy but to make a difference – to have it matter that you lived at all.

You only have to do your part to help with the overwhelming need and hurt on this planet; and you do not have to live wracked with guilt that you cannot do more.

Be full of gladness, and cherish your deep connection to all living things from bugs to bears.

Great words from a great person. As I reflected (something she always encouraged everyone to do) on what I learned from Mary Ann over the years, I realized how hard it is to pay tribute to someone that is larger than life. But, the Mary Ann I knew was always helping people see the world around them in new ways, turning them on to the mysteries and beauty of nature. That is how we first connected. I think back to one of my favorite snippets from a Mary Oliver poem. Mary Ann embodied the spirit of these words…

Instructions for Living a Life

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

And tell about it she did, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Thank you, Mary Ann, for helping me (and so many others) find ways to tell about it too, to follow our passion to share the wonders of nature with others, and for being such a tremendous role model and friend. And to all those who knew her, and will miss her, I truly believe she will continue to inspire and shape us. Remember, she never gives up on anything…

May “The Force” be with you.

Mary Ann on sunrise canoe trip on Turner River, FL

Mary Ann on a sunrise paddle on the Turner River, Florida

 

 

This Bud’s For You

There is April, in the swelling bud. There is Spring. There are the deep wonders of this season, not in the flower, but in the flower’s beginnings….the bud itself is the major miracle.

~Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

One of my favorite plants to watch this time of year is the Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica. It is a common shrub in our woods, and one of the few things the deer don’t seem to bother. It is also our first shrub to leaf out in Spring. We walked the property this weekend, looking for signs of Spring and possible nest cavity trees. Along the way, I stopped to admire and document the various stages of buckeye buds. There is so much life and hope contained in a single bud. I think Spring is finally here…

Painted buckeye bud unopened

Painted buckeye bud, swollen, but unopened (click photos to enlarge)

Painted buckeye bud just opening

A bud that has split open

painted-buckeye-bud-with-flower-stalk.jpg

The twisted emerging leaves surround a developing flower stalk

Painted buckeye bud after opening

Bud scales peeling back and textured leaves emerging

painted-buckeye-bud-opening-wider.jpg

Leaves beginning to unfurl

Painted buckeye with flower stalk

A flower cluster with a swirl of leaves around it

Painted buckeye leaves showing

The palmate leaves eventually spread out and continue to enlarge

 

Anticipation

The sun’s summons will not be answered overnight, but the answer is inevitable. The first hungry bee at the first crocus hums of June, and the first green leaf forecast cool summer shade. All is in order. Spring is the earth’s commitment to the year.

~Hal Borland

I have been extra busy this year at work and have not had much chance to get out and take pictures (plus the rainy weather has not been too conducive to such ventures). Today was glorious in its sunshine, though the ground still squishes as I walked the yard. But I saw signs of spring everywhere. I was at work for awhile this morning, prepping for a program tomorrow on vernal pools. In a quick walk to check on the nesting red-shouldered hawks, I also found a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest cavity (after a tip from a volunteer). Spring ephemerals have been blooming for a week or so at the Garden (trout lily, hepatica, windflower, some bloodroot). At home, on our north-facing slope, there hasn’t been much action as yet. But today showed me that spring is just around the corner…

Spotted salamander egg masses in water garden

Spotted salamander egg masses in one of our water gardens (click photos to enlarge)

I saw several spotted salamander egg masses one morning a few weeks ago following a couple of nights of particularly heavy downpours. And again, this past week, new egg masses appeared. When I reached down into the water at one of our water gardens, I could feel an almost solid blob of egg jelly reaching several inches below the water. At least something has liked all this rain!

Redbud buds

Redbud buds about to open

I carefully picked my way through the muddy mess that is our yard and found several species of plants ready to explode.

Wild columbine buds

Wild columbines have flower stalks with enlarged buds

Trout lily buds

Trout lilies will soon be blooming

Spicebush flowers opening

Spicebush has just started to bloom

Spring beauty

A single spring beauty is blooming

After a walk around the house, I sat and watched and listened for a few minutes. A male bluebird was serenading nearby and I caught a glimpse of a chickadee checking out one of the nest boxes. I remembered hearing spring peepers in last night’s rain. Melissa found a spotted salamander crossing the road toward a vernal pool last night as she was coming home. It seems as though everything is alive with anticipation for the season. I decided to check the weather for the next couple of days…more rain is forecast for tomorrow, and then a significant drop in temperatures. So much for anticipation. I think I’ll split some firewood.

Wild Places

The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it, the more beautiful does it appear.

~Richard Dawkins

Memories of Yellowstone are still lingering in my head…the scenery, the snow, the quiet, and the incredible wildlife. So, I did what I needed to do for my spirit last weekend, and headed to Pungo for the day. What better way to reinforce that feeling of wildness, the freedom that comes from being outside with countless wild creatures, than to go to my favorite spot in North Carolina, the Yellowstone of the East – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Melissa was out of town, so I did a solo one day trip, leaving home at 4:30 a.m. to get down there close to sunrise. When I pulled in, the morning show had already started…

Snow geese in field in morning light

Snow geese feeding in a cornfield at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

Snow geese, mixed with a flock of tundra swans, filled one of the fields close to the maintenance area. I pulled down on the side of the field where the low angle morning sunlight was hitting the birds, stopped the car, and watched as thousands of white forms moved through the fresh corn stubble in a feeding frenzy. The birds were close to the road so I could hear that mechanical sound made by thousands of snow geese grunting, squabbling, and gleaning kernels of corn from the field.

snow geese blasting off

A blast off close to the road

Suddenly, they all blasted off, circled the field a few times and started to land closer than before. I scanned the skies, and soon saw the cause of all the commotion…

bald eagle flying through snow geese

The cause of the blast-off, a cruising bald eagle

An adult bald eagle was flying across the field, looking over the flock for any possible weaknesses. When it got to the other side I saw two more eagles, perched, waiting, hoping for a chance at a goose breakfast.

snow goose in flight

The light was perfect for photos

A car drove by and spooked the eagles, so the snow geese quickly calmed down and started making short flights to leapfrog ahead of the moving mass of white to get to untouched spilled corn. This allowed me to get several nice views of them flying by and landing in beautiful light.

Snow geese (dark morphs) landing 1

Blue phase snow geese coming in for a landing

Northern shoveler drake

Northern shoveler ducks were abundant in the marsh impoundment

I drove on to the lake and was surprised to see very few swans. The impoundment was also relatively quiet (only a couple of hundred swans), but the shoreline was crowded with ruddy ducks and northern shovelers.

northern shoveler pair feeding

Pairs of northern shovelers were feeding together in tight circles

As I pulled in to a spot and parked, the ducks moved away in short flights, but soon returned as I sat in the car, camera out the window. This is where I see many people make a mistake and get out of their cars for a better view. If you use your vehicle as a blind, the birds will often return faster and you usually get a better image.

Ruddy duck in canal

A ruddy duck in a canal next to the road

Mid-day found me over at Mattamuskeet. Things were very quiet there with high water in the marshes along Wildlife Drive leading to fewer waterfowl than usual. I did notice several swan carcasses in the shrubbery along the entrance road…bobcats perhaps?

Trumpeter swan?

Swan at Mattamuskeet – Trumpeter or Tundra?

On the back loop of Wildlife Drive, I stopped to photograph some swans and in looking at the images a little later, found one that resemble a trumpeter swan – longish bill, no yellow on the bill (not always a guarantee it isn’t a tundra swan). What do you think?

yellow-rumped warbler

What are you staring at?

I cruised slowly along the shrub zone, looking for song birds, and, at one point, found a group of yellow-rumped warblers moving through some wax myrtles and sweetgum saplings. They always seem to have a bit of an attitude when they stop and look at you.

Sandhill cranes in cornfield

Back at Pungo, the wintering sandhill cranes

I returned to Pungo at about 4 pm, a little later than I hoped, but just in time for the start of the evening show. There were vehicles near the refuge entrance observing a few thousand swans out in the winter wheat so I drove on toward D-Canal Road where a local farmer had been cutting the last remaining standing corn in one of the refuge fields earlier. I hoped the birds would find this fresh food supply. I got down there and had several hundred swans in the field all to myself for awhile. A car finally pulled up and the occupants got out and walked into the field a short distance to take selfies with the birds in the background. You can imagine my thoughts…I pulled up to them, admonishing them for walking out toward the flock and spooking the birds. I suggested they should stay in their vehicle for a better look and not disturb the flock. To their credit, they offered an apology and got back in their car as I drove off. As I drove by the adjoining field, I saw the familiar stooped posture of feeding sandhill cranes in the fresh cut cornfield. No doubt the same three birds we had seen on the Christmas Bird Count several weeks ago.

Sandhill cranes, swans, and rwb in cornfield

Cranes sharing the field with swans and red-winged blackbirds

The cranes were soon joined by several hungry swans and hundreds of red-winged blackbirds. As I watched, I heard the sound of approaching snow geese. I looked up and could see thousands of birds coming in from high up in the graying sky. This is why I keep coming back – this spectacle of the birds in winter at Pungo is unlike an other wildlife experience in North Carolina.

snow geese descending into field

Snow geese beginning their descent

I love the sounds and sights of a huge flock of snow geese, swirling above a field, and gradually coming down.

snow geese landing

Landing in a swirl of wings

I am always amazed they seemingly aren’t landing on top of their flock-mates, but maybe that’s what all the noise is about – snow goose warnings.

snow goose blast off

Late day blast-off of snow geese

After feeding for many minutes, something caused the massive flock to explode from the field in a wall of black and white feathers. That sound is one of the most amazing, loud, whumpfs in nature. I may not get back down this winter before they all start their long journey northward, but am thankful for this incredible day in this amazing wild place.

Endings

For this final post on our recent winter trip to Yellowstone, I share a poem that Melissa wrote on a previous trip and read to our group while snowshoeing one day. It seems like an appropriate ending for this incredible journey.

Yellowstone (a poem by Melissa Dowland)

            I want so much

To connect ever deeper

            With this place;

            Idolized,

                        But perhaps rightly so.

            I want to feel

Home

            To become part

            Of all that I see

                        And hope

            That this special place

            Embodies

                        And is.

Is it home? Not home maybe.

            I want to become the

                        Person who’s home this is.

Who knows intimately

            Who connects deeply

Who embodies the wild freedom

Who glories in the spectacular

            And the common

Who loves deeply

            (who never dulls)

                        who lives courageously

                                    who embraces wonder

and who teaches others

            as this place itself teaches,

to connect

            to glory

                        to live

in that same way:

something larger than oneself

something as big as the whole world.

People on boardwalk

The boardwalk at Grand Prismatic Spring (click photos to enlarge)

Ice-covered trees at Grand Prismatic 2

Icy trees at Grand Prismatic

Dead trees at Upper Geyser Basin

Dead trees in the Upper Geyser Basin

Ephydrid flies and eggs

Ephydrid flies and their salmon-colored eggs in one of the thermal areas

Bull moose in snow

Bull moose at Round Prairie

snowy cow elk

Elk cow near the North entrance

snowy bison 1

Snowy bison face

Baby bison - late calf

A late-born bison calf, still sporting its reddish-orange coat

Lamar hills

Snowy hills in Lamar Valley

Rocky moutain bighorn ram at confluence

Bighorn ram near the Confluence

coyote that was chased by ranger

A coyote that had apparently been fed and was being harassed by a park ranger (moving toward it in her vehicle with flashing lights) in an attempt to keep it away from people

Elk resting in snow - cow and bull

Elk resting in a snow storm

Mule deer buck

Mule deer buck

Golden eagle

Golden eagle

Almost mature bald eagloe

Bald eagle (about 3 1/2 years old based on plumage)

Hayden Valley Highlight

At this season Nature makes the most of every throb of life that can withstand her severity. How heartily she endorses this fox!

~John Burroughs, “The Snow-Walkers”, 1866

Hayden Valley is one of my favorite spots in winter, with its gently rolling hills covered in deep, smooth snow, interrupted only by an isolated tree here and there and the tracks of some animal wandering across a seemingly endless blanket of white. As our snow coach pulled away from the river’s edge and started to climb a hill, we saw another coach headed our way that had stopped, photographers out along the road. Moving steadily away from them (and us) was a gorgeous red fox in great low angle winter light. The other group was headed back to their vehicle as we jumped out, and I admit I was frustrated that this beauty was soon to disappear over the hill toward the river.

Red fox in Hayden Valley

Red fox in Hayden Valley (click photos to enlarge)

We waited, and watched. In a short while, the fox came trotting back over the hill toward us and then plopped down in the snow, eyes squinting against the bright light, looking incredibly regal in its luxuriant fur coat.

Red fox sitting

The fox sat for a few minutes, surveying the scene

Most red foxes in the lower 48 states (especially East of the Rockies), are believed to be a subspecies introduced from Europe in the 1700 and 1800’s for hunting and fur farming. But, there are also native subspecies that occur at high elevations in Yellowstone (generally above 8000 feet in the park) and other northern regions. The latter tend to be lighter in color and are known as mountain foxes. This fox was full-on red – an incredibly beautiful animal, and the scene we were lucky enough to see it in was equally stunning.

Red fox looking back

As it moved across the snow, the light brought out the rich colors of the fox’s fur

Red fox in deep snow

Though it usually was able to walk on top of the snow, the fox sank deep at one point and paused for a few seconds

As we walked along the road, the fox moved steadily across the snow field. Periodically, it paused, and I kept hoping for the classic fox snow pounce, an arching leap ending with a head plunge into the snow to grab an unsuspecting creature tunneling beneath the white surface. But, it never happened.

Red fox walking on snow

The fox continued walking, stopping occasionally to sniff and listen

The closest we got was a nose plunge, but I’ll take it. Fox sightings have increased over the years since the reintroduction of wolves. Wolves keep coyote numbers in check, Coyotes kept fox numbers down. Fewer coyotes, more foxes.

Red fox sticking snout in snow close up

It paused, looked down, and stuck its snout into the snow

Red fox sitting in snow

Finding nothing, the fox sat back and looked around

red fox strolling through snow as it leaves us

After glancing back our way, this beautiful animal headed back over the hill

These are the moments that stay with me, the chance to observe a beautiful wild creature going about its life, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. It is a rare treat enhanced by the fact that it happened in a spectacular location and was shared with good friends. How lucky for us all.

 

Into the Interior – Day 1

Winter is not a season, it’s a celebration.

~Anamika Mishra

A trip into the interior of Yellowstone in winter is truly magical. Most of the extensive road system is closed in winter to all but over-snow travel via snowmobiles or snow coaches. We had chartered a snow coach for our group so we could travel in comfort and have more control of our route and stops. We set off early in the morning with a first stop at Swan Lake Flats, a vast, flat expanse surrounded by high peaks.

Sunrise at Swan Lake FDlats

Sunrise at Swan Lake Flats (click photos to enlarge)

Cold temperatures and our first full sun morning made for beautiful conditions, including sun dogs at sunrise.

Mountains at Swan Lake

Snowy mountains surrounding Swan Lake Flats

Ice crystals on grass

Ice-encrusted grasses greeted us on our first stop

Moon setting at Swan Lake Flats

Full moon setting at sunrise

Driving toward Canyon, you soon realize the interior of the park receives much more snowfall than much of the northern range. There are meadows covered by an untouched blanket of deep snow with only hints of what lies beneath – a sinuous line shows a creek channel and tips of tree branches reveal a partially buried conifer.

Meadow and creek near Canyon

A carpet of deep snow lies throughout the interior

When we drove into the parking lot at Artist Point at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the main reasons for my love of winter in Yellowstone became obvious – there was no one else there. In summer, this lot would be at capacity with hundreds of visitors crowding the trail and summit of the overlook. Today, our own private viewing of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the geological wonders that helped convince Congress to set this area aside as the world’s first national park.

Lower Falls and ice mountain

Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (308 ft)

If you take a closer look at Lower Falls in winter, you notice a huge dome-shaped mound in front of the falls. This is “ice mountain”, a large pile of frozen mist, water, and snow that accumulates every winter at the base of the falls, sometimes reaching heights of well over a hundred feet. One source I read said that it tends to vanish quickly in the spring, often collapsing on itself in just a few hours as temperatures warm.

Rolling hillside of untouched snow

Undisturbed snow field at Canyon

Tree top sticking out of snow at Canyon

Backlit conifer peeking above snow

Yellowstone River at Chittenden Bridge

Yellowstone River viewed from the Chittenden Memorial Bridge

Heading out of the Canyon area, we stopped and walked out onto the Chittenden Memorial Bridge that crosses the Yellowstone River just above the Upper Falls. In summer, this is a tranquil-looking area, with small rapids giving just a hint of the watery chaos that occurs just downstream as the river thunders over 100 feet at the Upper Falls and plunges another 308 feet at the Lower Falls. In winter, it is a great place to see signs of river otter hunting the open waters. The trails in the snow along the water’s edge you can see in the photo above were made by otter.

Trumpeter swans on ice

Trumpeter swans relaxing on the ice

Just upstream, we encountered our first trumpeter swans of the trip, a pair resting quietly on the edge of the ice.

Trumpeter swan in river

Trumpeter swan in the Yellowstone River

They were soon joined by another pair that flew in and landed near them, but that stayed out in the open water of the river. Trumpeters gather in the park in winter to take advantage of the many waterways kept open by thermal activity.

Tree in Hayden Valley

The majesty of Hayden Valley in winter

The trip down through Hayden Valley is always my favorite part of a winter journey and I was so glad that it had turned out to be a clear day for it. Massive snow-covered hills, many devoid of any visible vegetation, give a seemingly horizon-less world view. Here and there, isolated trees give perspective and some scale to the immensity of this windswept terrain.

Steam and ice at Mud Volcano

Frozen steam coats the trees at Mud Volcano

Mud Volcano provides a hint of things to come with our first major thermal features along the route. Cold temperatures enhance the steam production and nearby trees are coated with thick cushions of ice. Wildlife often congregate in these thermal areas to avoid the bitter cold and deep snow elsewhere.

Coyote at Mud Volcano

A coyote warily eyes our group

Ice crystals in parking lot

Ice crystals at thermal spots in the parking lot

West Thumb pool

Hot spring at West Thumb Geyser Basin

By the time we reached West Thumb Geyser Basin, a thick cloud cover had helped create a world of stark contrasts of black and white with occasional tinges of thermally induced color. I wish it wasn’t so expensive to charter a snow coach, as this trip is something more people need to experience. Being surrounded by a seemingly endless landscape of cold and ice, punctuated by otherworldly thermal activity, and having the opportunity to observe how wildlife adapts and survives in such a hostile place, gives one pause to consider the meaning of wildness, of beauty, and of life itself.

West Thumb trees

Overcast skies help paint this frigid world in tones of black and white

 

 

Sharing The Place We Love

Through the weeks of deep snow we walked above the ground on fallen sky…

~Wendell Berry

After a few days of hanging out with our friends in Gardiner and exploring the park on our own, we drove to Bozeman to pick up a group of friends from NC that would be joining us on our Yellowstone adventure. We both love sharing wild places with people and we have been fortunate to do it as part of our careers for many years. Sharing a love of place with others makes your own sense of place even stronger and more satisfying.

img_6440

Devil’s Slide just outside the northern entrance to Yellowstone (click photos to enlarge)

Cloudy skies and light snow greeted our group as we drove towards the park, but there is a stark beauty in this landscape that those conditions tend to intensify. The crisp air gives more detail to the land than we are used to back home and the vastness provides a humbling backdrop to any outdoor experience.

Pronghorn along dirt road

Pronghorn along the road into Yellowstone

We drove in on the dirt road that starts at the bridge over the Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs, a route we had never taken before, but that will probably be our go-to route in the future. It passes through some sagebrush and grasslands and is a haven for wildlife, like pronghorns, that migrate out of the park in winter to avoid the deep snow. You pass through some private property along the roadside and finally enter the park after a couple of miles. Right before we entered the park, we saw what would be our third ermine for the trip (amazing!). Unfortunately, we never managed a decent image of these beautiful little weasels as they are very fast and often disappear under the snow or in a log jam. One of our friends did grab a phone pic but all you see is a little white blur on the surrounding snow-free landscape.

rooseveltarch

Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance

We have a long tradition of driving through the iconic Roosevelt Arch on our first and last days in Yellowstone, stopping on the way in to admire its architecture and engraved words – For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People. Those words are from the National Parks Organic Act that established Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The arch rises 50 feet and is constructed of columnar basalt rocks quarried nearby. President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting the park while the arch was being built and ceremoniously laid the cornerstone in 1903 and was thereby honored by having it named after him. It is a dramatic feature on the landscape and a powerful emblem of the value of what Ken Burn’s called “America’s Best Idea”, our national parks. And this year was a particularly poignant one for the parks. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the park employees (and all other Federal workers) that were furloughed for so long in the government shutdown. By the time we arrived, many had been called back to duty without pay to maintain the safety of the parks’ resources and visitors. This is a dedicated group of people that performed professionally in spite of the crazy politics of our time.

Mule deer at entrance

Mule deer near Arch

Adjacent to the Arch were a few mule deer lying among the golden grasses, their huge ears surveying the scene. It is always a good sign to be greeted in such a beautiful fashion as you enter.

Snowy bison face

Snowy bison face

Our first full day with our friends was spent traveling the northern range looking for wildlife on our way to visit our friends in Silver Gate, the Hartman’s. The fresh snow made for some photogenic portraits of the wildlife we saw, mainly bison and herds of elk.

Bulll elk in snow

Large bull elk feeding in snow

A large bull elk drew a crowd at one point along the road. The down side of a fixed telephoto lens is you may have a hard time fitting it all in the frame if the animal is not off in the distance. A vehicle had run off the road at this point and was trying to shovel out so there was no place to park. We dropped our friends off to enjoy the view of this magnificent bull, drove a ways, turned around and picked them back up in time to see a furloughed park employee helping the stuck vehicle out of the ditch. In Silver Gate, I grabbed my camera as we walked up to our friends’ house as they often have a great variety of birds at their feeders in winter.

Pine grosbeak male

Male pine grosbeak

Once again, the fixed lens proved a difficult choice as the birds darted back and forth among the feeders a short distance away from the window where I stood.

Gray jay

Canada jay (formerly called gray jay)

Stellar's jay

Stellar’s jay

I did finally manage a decent image of the stunningly brilliant Stellar’s jay, a bird of the high elevation spruce-fir forests in this region.

Clark's nutcracker

Clark’s nutcracker

Red squirrel

Red squirrel

Other creatures also visit the feeder area, including red squirrels, the occasional wild turkey, red foxes, and pine martens. They also have flying squirrels and various owls checking out the area on occasion.

Snowshoeing

Friends snowshoeing behind Dan and Cindy’s house

After a show of some of Dan and Cindy’s incredible wildlife photos and videos, we headed out for the first of our snowshoe hikes on a trail behind the house. The fresh snow revealed tracks of martens, coyote, fox, ermine, and mice, along with some haystacks of pika up under some log overhangs.

weathered log in snow

Weathered log peeking out from the snow

The scenery in Silver Gate is breathtaking with high mountain peaks in every direction, coupled with small points of beauty all around.

Hike behind Dan's

Scene behind Dan and Cindy’s house

And snowshoeing is the perfect way to explore these woods, especially on a trail that has been walked before. It is easy and can be incredibly quiet when you stop to take it all in. Though it could be a tough life here, especially in winter, we all felt drawn to this place, to this lifestyle. Thank you, Dan and Cindy, for sharing it with us.

Next post…into the park’s interior.

The Place We Love

Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this, and suddenly the air is filled with snow. That is the way the whole world happened – there was nothing, and then…

~William Stafford

We have returned from our special place – Yellowstone. Not all of us is back. We seem to always leave a little of each of us there to soak it in, to be ready to relive it at the slightest opportunity. Winter in Yellowstone is truly magical and we were lucky to spend ten days in our paradise.

Cottonwoods in mist vertical

Winter scene with fog in Lamar Valley (click photos to enlarge)

The trip had been planned for over a year, with NC friends joining us for a while, and Melissa and I out there on our own a few days, spending some time with some of our Yellowstone friends. This is the first of a few posts on the trip, this one being the first few days before our NC friends joined us. The forecast looked snowy for most of our time, with only occasional breaks for sun. Forecasts can be iffy in Yellowstone, but this one turned out to be pretty accurate. The region needs snow, as it is only about 50% of the normal amount on the ground for this time of year in many places.

Dead snag at Hitching Post

Dead snag near Hitching Post on the edge of Lamar Valley

Our first few days were spent traveling the Northern Range from Gardiner, MT (where our friends live) to Silver Gate and Cooke City (where other friends live). This is the only roadway open to cars in winter due to the isolated communities outside the Northeast entrance that would otherwise be cut off due to deep snows in the mountain passes to the East.

Bull elk

A couple of big boys in a band of bull elk chillin’ in the snow

We saw the usual wildlife in the lower elevations – bison and elk – with larger herds of elk (especially cows, young bulls, and young of the year) than I have seen in a few years. As usual, we ran into a few bands of bulls peacefully hanging out together, even though they had battled fiercely for dominance just a few months ago.

ungulate paths

The snow reveals the well-worn paths of countless mammals that have moved through this valley over the years

Round Prairie

Round Prairie

 

Reports online had indicated this is a good year for moose, especially in the area known as Round Prairie, out past the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley.

Moose and calf lying down

A pair of moose relaxing in Round Prairie

Our first full day confirmed that – a total of five moose seen on out first visit out there. Two (possibly a cow and her calf from this year) were fairly close to the road bedded down. They seemed quite at ease until a young bull sporting only one antler (it is antler shedding time for moose) passed through, seemingly intent on something in the woods beyond the resting pair. They sprang up and stared in the direction he had disappeared.

Moose and calf standing

Something has their attention

We never saw the object of all their attention but they soon calmed down and moved on to browse on vegetation sticking up out of the deepening snow. We were standing along the roadside when a truck pulled up, said something about the moose out in the meadow and then mentioned, “you know you have a moose up on the hill behind you, don’t you?”.

Moose coming down hill

Indeed, there is a moose above us on the ridge

We looked behind us, and there it was, a huge moose standing along the ridge line, looking out toward Round Prairie. It was what one photographer out there called a “silver dollar moose” – a bull that has recently dropped its antlers, leaving two large circles of bone exposed on the head.

Moose coming down hill 2

Coming down the hill in deep snow

The moose quickly came down the hill, moving gracefully through the drifted snow. Large hooves, long legs, and a special gait (due to the ability to swing out their legs over the snow) allow moose to move through deep snow more efficiently than most ungulates (hoofed mammals). This one made its way down the hill, across the road, and into the forest in a matter of seconds.

One of Melissa’s goals on this trip was to cross country ski on our first few days, so we headed up the Tower Road, a groomed ski trail. My sore leg didn’t care for that activity, so she went solo on her next two trips, with me being her shuttle and waiting for wildlife in the interim.

Old bison in winter

An old bull bison that may not make it through this winter

I hung out for a time at Soda Butte, where an old bull bison seemed not long for this world. A visitor told me a coyote had been sitting with it most of the morning, waiting its turn for a possible buffet. When I arrived, the coyote was across the road trying to extract a morsel form an old wolf-killed elk carcass. A pair of magpies kept hopping up on the old bull, wondering when they might have a chance at feeding. When one hopped on its face (they often go for the eyes on a fresh carcass), the bull shook its head to let us all know he wasn’t through quite yet.

Coyote

This coyote came toward the old bison by walking right past a few of us

The coyote then decided to come back to the bison and check in. But, to our surprise, it chose a path that took it right past a small group of us standing at the pullout.

 

Coyote approaching road 1

Coyote made a bee line for the opposite side of the road, but we happened to be nearby

Coyote looking sideways

Something catches its attention away from us

Once across the road, it went over, checked on the bull, and then walked away, stopping to listen for unknown sounds in the snow.

Aspens in Little America

Aspens in Little America

The first few gray days were broken only occasionally by brief bursts of sunlight. The snow fell each day, a light, fluffy snow that accumulated faster than seemed possible.

Little America

Most days had at least a sliver of sunlight to illuminate the landscape for a few minutes

Bighorn ram

Bighorn sheep ram at the confluence (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove back and forth along the Northern Range, watching wildlife (including scope views of wolves in Lamar Valley), with Melissa skiing through some gorgeous scenery, and me taking in the features of the landscape, from huge mountains, to wildlife, to delicate plant stems posing above the increasingly thick white blanket covering the ground. More in the next post…

Cross country skiing

Melissa’s cross country skiing backdrop

Seed heads in snow

Even the small things are beautiful if you stop to look

Winter Bliss

When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go.     

~Alexandra Stoddard

I certainly carry certain places with me. And moments in those places have a way of adhering to my memory, reappearing when my mind wanders to sights and sounds of their wildness, their beauty, their mystery. And I now need these places and these memories even more. The beauty of nature has a way of helping us cope with the confounding issues of our times and gives us hope. One such place for me is what I usually simply call “Pungo”. Its official name is the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I managed another trip last weekend, heading down after a program at work on Saturday, and meeting friends from work Sunday morning.

Blackbirds flock

Flock of blackbirds swimming through the sky above a corn field (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived fairly late in the day on Saturday and went straight to North Lake Road. Flocks of blackbirds (mainly red-winged blackbirds and common grackles) were flying back and forth from the corn field to the trees, twittering as they flew in wave-like patterns in response to aerial predators (real or imagined) or some other cues. I ran into some friends and we had a nice flyover of snow geese that couldn’t make up their minds where to go. Melissa was down last weekend also, leading a Museum trip, and I found that group on the way out. We parked and watched swans returning to the refuge for the night along with the swarms of ducks (called ducknados by a young observer a couple of years ago) flying into the corn fields from the adjacent swamp.

sunrise on Marsh A

The quiet beauty of a sunrise at Pungo

The next morning found me sitting in the quiet of a Pungo sunrise with the soft cooing sounds of swans. There is something magical about sunrises, the way they slowly change the landscape – the silence, the peacefulness.

sunrise from Duck Pen

Morning clouds over Pungo Lake from Duck Pen blind

I decided to walk down to the Duck Pen observation blind hoping to see some swans in close. Instead, I was treated to a beautiful sky over the calm waters. A long swooshing sound turned out to be an approaching flock of red-winged blackbirds undulating westward to the corn fields.

Swan preening 1

The elegant moves of a Tundra Swan preening

As the sun rose above the trees, I headed back to the impoundment known as Marsh A to spend some quiet time with the majestic swans. These birds are simply feathered elegance. The low angle of morning light produces sharp lines and highlights the gentle curves of these beautiful birds. They spend a lot of time preening their 25,000 feathers…

Swan with feather on bill

They look good even with a little feather stuck on their bill

…and occasionally get one stuck on their bill (probably the equivalent of that piece of lettuce that your friend tries to tell you is stuck in your teeth). I truly enjoy spending time with the swans. But, my friends were going to arrive soon, so I decided to drive around and get a few pictures of other birds (or whatever I could find) while the light was so nice.

Swamp sparrow 1

A Swamp Sparrow feeding along the edge of a canal

I drove slowly along the canal edges looking for brushy spots that often harbor a variety of small birds. The usually secretive swamp sparrows were feeding out in the open along the edge of the water. If you take the time to look at sparrows, they really are elegant little birds, each species with a distinct personality and a blend of subtle colors and patterns.

Savannah sparrow

Savannah Sparrows along the edge of a field

As I drove along the field edges, groups of Savannah Sparrows flitted up from the corn stubble and grasses into the shrubs and trees lining the canals. I appreciated a chance to view them against the sky rather than camouflaged in the grasses.

Turkey vultures

Bright skies and warm temperatures made for a good day for vultures

The calm winds and clear skies made for a good vulture day. There are a few large turkey vulture roosts along the road edges at Pungo, so it is common to see them perched in snags along the roadsides in the morning, waiting for the warmth of the day to create thermals for their efficient flight. One member of the pair above demonstrated a common vulture behavior – the spread wing posture. This is often seen early in the day as birds try to warm up or dry their feathers after a damp night.

Turkey vulture head

A Turkey Vulture close-up

One vulture allowed me to drive up closer than most, so I was able to get a few portrait shots (maybe not your dream photo, but they are interesting nonetheless). There is a stark beauty in their ugliness, a lot of detail and character in their wrinkled faces. Adult turkey vultures have reddish skin (juveniles have blackish-gray skin) and an ivory bill. You can also see their huge nostrils (nares) which help them have one of the keenest senses of smell in the bird world. They also have a larger olfactory lobe in their brain compared to other species so they are well-equipped to detect dead animals as they soar above the landscape. As I drove along D-canal road, I spotted a few vultures squabbling over a duck or goose carcass in the private fields across the canal. As I watched, they suddenly took flight, along with a great blue heron that had been stalking prey in the nearby drainage ditch.

Great blue heron flying

As I watched the carcass, a Great Blue Heron flew by in a hurry

The heron flew in an arc from one field to another across the road, squawking as it went. I turned and saw the reason for all this commotion…

Bald eagle

The reason the heron took flight

…an adult bald eagle had flown into the trees behind me, no doubt alerted to the possibility of a meal by the gathering vultures. Though I waited patiently for 30 minutes, the cautious eagle maintained its perch, waiting for me to move on, which I finally did. When my friends arrived, we piled into one car and continued searching for wildlife. Our first stop was to view the swans. Warm days seem to make the wildlife lazy, content to hang out longer, making some species a bit tougher to find.

Painted turtle basking

Painted Turtle basking in Marsh A

But lazy winter days also make some species, like turtles, easier to see. As we drove along, there were turtles (mainly a mix of painted turtles and yellow-bellied sliders) basking on almost every log. That made me both wary and excited as we entered the woods, for this is the kind of day you might see a snake, especially “my snake”. I had stumbled upon the large canebrake rattlesnake again last weekend during the Christmas Bird Count at the same hollow tree as 3 years ago. We hiked slowly to the tree, looking carefully around the surroundings in case the rattler was out enjoying the warmth. After looking all around the area without spotting it, I knelt down and shined my flashlight into the hollow – no snake. I moved to the right, and shined the light in the other hollow – nothing. Suddenly, my eye caught a familiar pattern…there it was, a few feet from me, curled up at the entrance, partially hidden behind the grass and vines that now block part of the hollow.

rattlesnake

Even after we knew where it was, the snake was tough to see (photo by Janna Starr)

I seem to have a strange affinity (and partial blindness, apparently) for this snake. The others in my group couldn’t see it at first, and then, one by one, they spotted it.

Canebrake rattlesnake at entrance to den tree

Holding the camera high allowed a better view

We all jockeyed positions to get a better angle to view the snake which was partially obscured by the vegetation in front of the hole. This rattler (it probably is the same one from previous encounters at this tree) has not lived up to its name, having never rattled in any of my encounters with it over the past few years. I must admit, I wouldn’t mind a little noise the next time we meet.

Canebrake rattlesnake head shot

The telephoto view from the side

Even with all the commotion from its admiring crowd, the rattlesnake remained still, no doubt confident of its ability to defend itself from this group of interlopers. We wandered on, wishing it well until we meet again.

Snow geese at sunset

The last scene of the day – the magic of snow geese overhead

We headed back out to the road, hoping for a flyover of birds from the lake. The evening before, the snow geese had flown out and around a few times, but not landed. As we walked back to the car, we heard them coming. We paused as they flew over toward the far corner of the corn field. At first, a few hundred. That flock went back to the lake and returned with a few thousand. More joined the flock as they began to circle the fields. Some would spin off toward the lake, but more kept coming in, until perhaps they felt they had enough critical mass to make a decision – to land in the field. They finally started to drop down into the corn and thousands more birds came in from the lake to join the circling mass. Finally, several thousand birds were feeding in the corn. After what seemed like a very brief meal (considering all the energy they burned flying around beforehand), they all lifted off and headed back to the refuge of the lake. There is nothing like this anywhere else in North Carolina (or anywhere else in the East for that matter)…thousands of birds filling the sky, golden light tinging their undersides as they noisily fly over you. The true meaning of spectacle, and the reason I keep returning to Pungo.