Summer Details

The beauty of the natural world lies in the details.

~ Natalie Angier

It has been a hectic few weeks at work with summer camp. One good thing is I am out in the Garden daily, and, anytime you are out in a place with that much diversity, there are plenty of things to see. I managed to take the camera out a few days before and after camp, and found some interesting subjects. Here are a few of the recent highlights…

Waved sphinx larva

Waved sphinx moth larva feeding on fringetree (click photos to enlarge)

Walnut sphinx pupa

The mummy-like pupa of a walnut sphinx moth (the antennae of the future moth can be seen outlined in the pupa as they curl down from the top into a point just above my finger)

Snowy Tree Cricket
Snowy tree cricket  (Oecanthus fultoni), male – this is the so-called thermometer cricket. The frequency of the chirps made by this species (made by the males as they rub their wings together) is considered a fairly reliable estimate of the air temperature. In the Eastern U.S., Fahrenheit temperature can be estimated by counting the chirps in 13 sec. and adding 40.
Yellow jackets on caterpillar

Yellow jackets dispatch a pink-striped oakworm to feed to their larvae

Rabbit running in Garden

One of the many bunnies that reside at the Garden (quite happily, I presume)

Black-spotted prominent

Gardener’s friend – a black-spotted prominent larva feeding on lespedeza

Black-spotted prominent rear end

This caterpillar practices deceit with its back end looking like a front end

Sassafras berries

The beautiful and wildlife-friendly berries of a sassafras tree

Handsome Trig 1

A handsome trig (also called a red-headed bush cricket). This one is a male. The handsome part is self-evident; the trig part refers to the family Trigonidiinae, or Winged Bush Crickets.

Handsome Trig nymph

Handsome trig nymph (wings are still developing)

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

Dogbane leaf beetle, an iridescent beauty

Planthopper - Rhyncomitra microrhina

A very pointy-headed planthopper (Rhyncomitra microrhina) that we caught while sweep-netting

Planthopper - Rhyncomitra microrhina, top view

Dorsal view of same planthopper

Rear end of tulip tree silk moth cayerpillar

All is well that ends well…the rear end of a tuliptree silk moth caterpillar. Eggs were laid by a female on 5/18/17, hatched on 5/30; caterpillars had all pupated by 6/29; first adult moth of this summer’s second generation emerged on 7/20. This new generation will overwinter as pupae.

 

Ambushed

We are not afraid of predators, we are transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters…

~Ecologist, E.O. Wilson

I took a stroll through the Garden after work one day this week, looking for some flowers to photograph as a backdrop for a needed poster. I wanted a flower off to one side, with black background for the lettering.

Ironweed, which sp?

Ironweed (click photos to enlarge)

I stopped at an ironweed plant, a great nectar source for all sort sorts insects, and took a few quick shots. I saw some movement on another plant, and went over to grab a pic of a pollinator…

Silver-spotted skipper on ironweed

Silver-spotted skipper on ironweed

The skipper was moving from flower to flower, probing for nectar. I moved to get another angle, and noticed something odd dangling below another flower…

Silver-spotted skipper hanging from Ironweed

Silver-spotted skipper dangling below a flower – look closely at the flower

It was another silver-spotted skipper, apparently hanging by its proboscis. How did that happen? As I bent down to look, I noticed something on the underside of the ironweed flower – a small insect – a jagged ambush bug, genus Phymata. This is one of the sit-and-wait predators often seen lurking on flowers, waiting for an unsuspecting pollinator to get too close. Most predators of this sort are camouflaged to help conceal them while they wait. This one appears to look more like the developing seeds in the flower to the right in this picture, than the bright purple of the flower itself, so I am guessing it waited on the underside and grabbed the much larger skipper when it landed. I gently touched this tiny tiger to get it to move up for a better look.

Jagged ambush bug close up

Jagged ambush bug close up

Ambush bugs are stout-bodied predators with enlarged, raptorial front legs, somewhat resembling those of a praying mantis. They look like some sort of alien tank out of a science fiction movie to me.

Jagged ambush bug beak

Powerful beak of an ambush bug can be seen here tucked under its head

When a prey gets close enough, they lash out and grab it with those legs and stab it with their powerful beak, injecting toxic saliva with digestive enzymes. As the insides of their prey dissolve, the ambush bug sucks up the nutrients, leaving an empty shell of its victim behind. I am guessing this skipper had just settled in for a nice sip of nectar when terror struck, leaving its proboscis stuck down in a flower tube which led to the scene I discovered.

Ambush Bug

Jagged ambush bug

The bug soon walked out onto the stem for an better view, so I snapped a few more images, When I looked at them on my laptop this morning, I noticed something else…

Hitchhiker on ambush bug

Another insect hitching a ride on the ambush bug

During the entire sequence of shots of the ambush bug, it had another insect (or perhaps an insect larva) crawling around its body. Was it a harmless hitchhiker, or some parasite? A quick web search showed another image of an ambush bug with what looks like a small lacewing larva hitching a ride, and my somewhat fuzzy image looks similar. Coincidence or collaboration? I guess I will try to find this little guy again next week and see if I can get a better image of the hitchhiker for identification and clarification of this mystery.

 

 

Baby Spiders

Once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else.

~E.B. White

I have been raising some tulip-tree silk moth larvae at home and at work which has necessitated the periodic collecting of small branches of tulip poplar. Last week, when I cut one and brought it in I noticed one of my favorite spiders sitting on the underside of one of the leaves.

Magnolia Green Jumper female

Magnolia green jumper looking up at the camera (click photos to enlarge)

It was a female magnolia green jumper. I recently did a post about the males of this species when I found a couple on some pawpaw trees at the house. But this was a female (distinguished by the lack of swellings near the tips of her pedipalps) and she was apparently guarding something very precious…

Magnolia green jumper eggs

Eggs of a magnolia green jumper

…a cluster of eggs in a loosely spun silken case on the underside of a tulip poplar leaf. They did not resemble the usual spider egg case, which tends to be enclosed in a globular silken egg sac. These were loosely dispersed beneath a sheet of silk as individual eggs. I checked online just to make sure and found some other images that confirmed these were indeed her eggs. Since I had already cut the branch, I decided to keep them and watch what happened.

Magnolia green jumper seggs hatching close up

Spiderlings just after hatching

Three days after I collected the leaf with the eggs, I noticed a change. There appeared to be spider-like blobs poking off the green eggs. I must admit, I just could not figure out how this worked. Was this thing with leg-like appendages the spider emerging from the egg? The more I looked at it, I decided that the old egg shell is actually the whitish crumpled blob you can see next to each green orb in the photo, and that the roundish green thing is the abdomen of the a new spider.

Magnolia green jumper spiderlings group

Cluster of magnolia green jumper spiderlings

This was confirmed over the next couple of days as I watched the spiderlings unfold their legs (this occurred on day 5 after I collected the eggs and two days after the previous photo was taken).

Magnolia green jumper spiderlings close up

Three days after I first saw the baby spider legs appearing to unfold from the eggs

Magnolia green jumper spiderlings

Magnolia green jumpers three days after hatching

The young spiderlings have continued to develop as I watch them each day, their eyes appearing larger and darker in color, and they seem to be moving more, albeit still inside the silken covering laid down by their mother. Today, I will probably go ahead and clip their leaf to a tulip poplar branch and watch to see when (and how) they manage to leave this protective lair. I imagine, somewhere nearby, their mother is looking on with proud eyes (all 8 of them)…

Magnolia green jumper female close up

Magnolia green jumper female

 

Spittlebugs

In the spring, the eastern half of North America turns into one big spittoon…

~Amy Breau

They have always fascinated me, these little blobs of “spit” on vegetation. Must be the leftover 4th grade boy that still resides in one corner of my brain.

spittlebug spit

Spittle (click photos to enlarge)

Once or twice a year, I can’t resist the urge to touch one of the the little balls of spit, gently brushing away the foam to see what lies beneath. It is usually the same little green blob of an insect that greets me.

Spittlebug nymphs

A pair of spittlebugs revealed

Usually there is only one, but this year, after reading there are often multiples hidden beneath the bubbles, I actually found two spittlebug nymphs in one of the frothy masses.

spittlebug

Close-up of spittlebug

The aptly-named spittlebugs are related to other plant-suckers like aphids and cicadas.. The immature stage, or nymph, is the one that creates the spittle (it has also been called frog spit or snake spit) as both a protection from predators, and as the ideal humidity and temperature control chamber that helps them keep from drying out in warm temperatures. The nymph sucks on plant juices while facing head-down on a stem, and uses anal appendages to froth up the excess liquid exuded as a by-product of its feeding habits. The bubbles flow downward with gravity and eventually envelope the nymph. Interestingly, the bubbly mass has good staying power (the bubbles may last several days), which makes me wonder if there might not be some commercial use for whatever it is they use to give their bubbly cover such longevity. Another oddity about this critter is that, unlike most sap-sucking insects, this one tends to tap the xylem, the tissue that transports water from the roots to the shoots. Most other sap feeders use the phloem, the tissue that transports food from the leaves down to the roots as it is generally more nutrient-rich. This may explain why they must process large quantities of fluid (they pump 200+ times their body weight in fluid every day) to sustain themselves.

Two-lined Froghopper

Adult form of one species – the two-lined froghopper

Adult spittlebugs also feed on sap, and some are considered agricultural pests. Many are known by the common name, froghopper, due to their incredible jumping ability. A few resources state they may be the all-time champion jumpers, worthy of superhero power status, as some froghoppers can leap up over 100 times their body length, the equivalent of a six-foot tall human jumping the height of two football fields!

I am beginning to see some small frothy masses appear again on vegetation at the Garden and references state that, for many species, there are two generations per year. So, you still have time to get out and rub some spittle to see what’s underneath. Just make sure there are no 4th grade boys around.

 

King of the Marsh

Wherever there are extensive marshes by the sides of sluggish streams, where the bellowings of the alligator are heard at intervals, and the pipings of myriads of frogs fill the air, there is found the Fresh-water Marsh-hen…

~John James Audubon, as described by his friend, John Bachman, 1840

This post should have been written a month ago, when I made these observations. But, one thing leads to another these days, so it is a bit late in getting on the blog. It started as I was searching for bears at my favorite haunt, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I paused to look for bears in trees at a spot I had seen them the day before, when suddenly, something ran out into the dirt road ahead of me. It was a King Rail! I fired a couple of quick frames, but blew the shots, as the rail moved quickly into the tall grasses between the road and the canal. As I was searching the vegetation, my eye caught another movement out in the open…

king rail chick

Juvenile King Rail pauses at the edge of the dirt road before disappearing into the grass (click photo to enlarge)

I was thrilled! I had only seen adult King Rails, and only three times over my many years of traipsing these haunts. I had heard their distinctive calls on many trips, but they tend to be an elusive critter and blend in very well in the dense vegetation of their marshy homes. The little one quickly disappeared, probably trailing its mom. I moved the car toward the edge of the canal, hoping to see the birds if they crossed.

king rail and reflection

Adult King Rail crossing a log on the canal

She suddenly appeared on a log sticking out into the canal, turning briefly to look back toward where the young bird had been, then walking across and onto the far bank. I looked up from the camera, and saw five tiny black forms swimming across the canal, all partially obscured by some tall grasses.

king rail chick struggling on log

Young rail clawing its way up onto a log

I quickly moved the car forward and managed to get one shot of the straggler as it struggled to climb up onto the log where its mom had been moments before. I could see the little gang of rails following the adult as she wound her way through the vegetation and back into the dense shrubs. These things can happen fast, and I guess I was lucky to have managed a few images, but I was thankful for the chance to see this family at all. I waited for a few minutes, but imagine she had ushered her brood far away from the road. So, I started to drive on, and then…

King Rail

Another rail feeding next to the canal, just a few yards down the road

There was another rail, just across the canal from me. This one was just threading its way through the vegetation along the canal, probing and feeding. King rails feed on a variety of invertebrates including aquatic insects, crayfish, and other small critters like frogs and fish.

King rail in alligator weed

I spent about 45 minutes with this cooperative bird

I ended up spending quite a bit of time following this bird as it moved back and forth along the canal bank, seemingly unconcerned about the car inching along on the opposite bank. This was when another vehicle pulled up, realized I was watching “just a bird” and drove off. I reported on what I saw when I turned back around to look at the rail in an earlier post.

king rail showing feet

Check out those feet

On two occasions, the rail stopped to stretch and preen. At one point it came out onto a mud bank where its huge feet were clearly visible, a great adaptation for walking on the top of marsh vegetation.

king rail calling

The rail graced me with a few calls while I watched

But, the highlight for me was when the rail let loose with its distinctive, harsh and loud kik-kik-kik call. As I mentioned, I have heard this call many times and tried more often than I can count to find the caller, and here was on out in the open, with just me as an observer. Life is good!

And here is a very brief clip for you to enjoy…

 

Tiny Dancers

Some people look at big things, and other people look at very small things, but in a sense, we’re all trying to understand the world around us.

~Roderick MacKinnon

Yesterday we hiked over to Morgan Creek at work to prepare for some upcoming trips with summer campers where we will sample the stream for macro-invertebrates. I am pleasantly surprised at the diversity of critters that still exist in this Piedmont stream.

Dusky Dancer damseflies

Damselflies on a rock along Morgan Creek (click photos to enlarge)

One of the first things to catch my eye was a pair of damselflies in tandem. That is where the male has a clasp on the female’s neck using special abdominal appendages. This is a precursor to their unusual mating behavior, and, in some species, is also carried on through the egg-laying process, with the male staying with the female to protect his interests. In the photo above, the male is the one perched upright and the female is perched on the rock.
Dusky Dancer damselflies in tandem

A pair of Dusky Dancer damselflies in tandem

The male is a particularly dark damselfly with only thin blue rings along most of the abdomen. This is characteristic of the Dusky Dancer, Argia translata. This is a widespread species inhabiting streams, rivers, and large lakes from Ontario to Argentina. They are found throughout much of the Piedmont and Mountains of North Carolina, but are generally not considered abundant in any location. I wanted to get some better images, so I kept stalking the pair, and laying down on the gravel bar to try to get a low angle image.

Dusky Dancer damselflies, Argia translata

The classic in tandem pose for this species

After several unsuccessful attempts, they finally stayed put long enough for a couple of shots. This morning, I looked them up in my field guides to confirm their identifiction, and as I was zooming in to see diagnostic features of the abdomen, I discovered something I had not noticed in the field…

Dusky Dancer with possible egg parasitoid

A tiny wasp on one of the damselflies (zoomed in to see the wasp)

…a tiny hitchhiker on the abdomen of the male. In most of the photos, the critter had been camera shy and mostly hidden on the back side. But in this last set, it was visible and I tentatively identified it as a potential parasitic wasp. In searching the web, I found that there are a few species of parasitic wasps (most in the genus, Hydrophylita) that are egg parasitoids on damselflies. If this is one of them, when the damselfly lays her eggs underwater, the wasps crawls down the abdomen, into the water, and lays eggs within the eggs of the damselfly. The wasp larvae then hatch and consume the eggs of the host. Whoa, the more I learn, the stranger it all becomes!

Land Shark

But somewhere, beyond Space and Time, is wetter water, slimier slime!

~Rupert Brooke

I remember the first time I found one, years ago, I wasn’t sure what it was…some sort of alien creature? What impressed me was how long it was, and how slimy. And that head, that strange, oddly-moving head!

Terrestrial flatworm

Terrestrial planarian (click photos to enlarge)

Turns out they are a terrestrial flatworm, or planarium. I have seen them off and on over the years, usually under a log that I rolled, but now I am finding them with more frequency in the plant beds and woods at work. A few weeks ago, one of the horticulture staff asked me to come out and look at a strange “thing” they had found when moving some rocks in the children’s area, and that started a series of discoveries of these bizarre creatures that also go by the common name of hammerhead worms.

Terrestrial flatworm head

The head of a hammerhead worm resembles the rounded outline of a hammerhead shark head or a garden spade

Photographing these little slimy beasts is not particularly easy as they are often just one giant twisted and striped slime ball. The leading edge of the spade-shaped head ripples as the head swings back and forth (there will be a video of these guys in my future). These critters are believed to have come from Southeast Asia and were probably imported into this country on nursery stock.

Hammerhead worm

I think this species is Bipalium kewense

These odd-looking flatworms have an equally strange life history. They are hermaphroditic (both sexes in one).  Although eggs and cocoons are known, the usual mode of reproduction is asexual – by fragmentation. A small portion of the worm’s rear end will pinch off, and “stay behind” as the worm moves forward. The head starts to form a few days afterward. They are predators, mainly on earthworms, which are digested externally (there are reports of them also feeding on slugs and some immature insects). The flatworm first subdues its prey with a toxin and copious amounts of slime. Then it extrudes its pharynx from its mouth (which is located on its underside about mid-way down the body) and secretes digestive enzymes which basically dissolve the earthworm. This goo is then sucked back into the flatworm.

Terretrial flatworm next to boot

Hammerhead worm next to my boot toe for scale

Hammerhead worms can be quite long when stretched out as they crawl (or slide) across the dirt, often approaching lengths of 12 inches. Apparently, little is known about the ecology of these terrestrial flatworms…how long do they live?; who eats them (their mucus probably deters most predators, but they are reported to be cannibalistic)?; and what impact do they have on native species? Maybe I will collect a few and keep them in containers for observation…but, then again…

Just a Bird…

Spend time every day looking and listening without any ulterior motive whatsoever. Look not as a writer, or as a philosopher, not even as a scientist or artist—look and listen, simply, like a child, for enjoyment, because the world is interesting and beautiful. Let in nature without the vast and complicated apparatus of duty, ambition, habit, morals, profession—look and listen like a child to the robin in the tree.

~David Grayson

Much of my time outdoors is spent wandering, not for something in particular, but just wandering and being open to whatever I discover. Even in a place like Yellowstone, known to wildlife-watchers as one of the premier places in North America to observe charismatic megafauna like bison, bears elk, and wolves, there are many treasures that await those who are open to them.

Western tanager

Western tanager male (click photos to enlarge)

Before my guests arrived, I stopped at a pullout in Lamar Canyon to scan the far ridges for some of those magafauna I mentioned, but what caught my eye was brilliant flash of yellow and orange in a nearby conifer. A male Western tanager, one of the most beautiful birds in Yellowstone! Suddenly, there was another, and then another. I raced over to the van for my camera, long lens, and tripod, and that caught the attention of a passing motorist. The common refrain when someone sees a spotting scope or long lens pointing at something is “Whaddya have?” or something similar. I responded with “a  couple of Western tanagers”, and got that look, the one I often get when I am photographing a bird, insect, or something besides one of the big mammals. It is even sometimes accompanied by that phrase, “It’s just a bird”, and then they drive off. Well, I have had many memorable just a bird moments over the years, too many to recall really, and that goes for birds in Yellowstone as well. And a few Western tanagers are sure to catch my attention anytime. A couple of other park visitors even came over to try to photograph them once I pointed them out.

Below are a few more of those moments from this trip.

Hawk attacking eagle

A hawk dive bombs a bald eagle that was flying too close to its nest

sparrow nest 1

The ground nest of a vesper sparrow that we accidentally flushed while walking through the sagebrush

Fledgling American robin

A fledgling American robin near my cabin in Silver Gate

Red-naped sapsucker in hole

A red-naped sapsucker peers out of its nest cavity in an aspen tree

Flicker male at nest 1

A male Northern flicker at its nest cavity after feeding a young bird

Flicker at nest

Female Northern flicker feeding young

American avocets

American avocets feeding in Floating Island Lake

American avocet

American avocet

Osprey at nest

Osprey nest with one bird  sitting on eggs, and the mate sitting nearby

Osprey coming in for fish

Osprey making a strafing run on cutthroat trout spawning in the creek at Trout Lake

Osprey catching trout

Osprey snags a trout just behind the tall grass along the creek

Osprey catching trout close up

It looks like the fish is caught by only one talon

Osprey catching trout 1

The osprey tried to lift off with its struggling prey

Osprey flying off with trout

Right after this photo was taken, the trout wriggled free and fell back onto the water

Bird species observed in and around Yellowstone National Park – June 10-18, 2017

60 species:

Trumpeter Swan; Canada Goose; American Wigeon; Mallard; Cinnamon Teal; Green-winged Teal; Northern Shoveler; Ring-necked Duck; Lesser Scaup; Bufflehead; Barrow’s Goldeneye; Common Merganser; Ruddy Duck; Ruffed Grouse; Western Grebe; American White Pelican; Osprey; Bald Eagle; Red-tailed Hawk; American Coot; Sandhill Crane; Killdeer; American Avocet; Wilson’s Snipe (heard); Wilson’s Phalarope; California Gull; Rock Pigeon; Great Horned Owl; Williamson’s Sapsucker; Red-naped Sapsucker; Northern Flicker; American Kestrel; Peregrine Falcon; Gray Jay; Stellar’s Jay; Black-billed Magpie; Common Raven; Tree Swallow; Violet-green Swallow; Cliff Swallow; Barn Swallow; Mountain Chickadee; House Wren; American Dipper; Mountain Bluebird; American Robin; European Starling; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Chipping Sparrow; Vesper Sparrow; White-crowned Sparrow; Dark-eyed Junco; Western Tanager; Red-winged Blackbird; Western Meadowlark; Yellow-headed Blackbird; Brewer’s Blackbird; Brown-headed Cowbird; Cassin’s Finch; Pine Siskin

Baby Buffalo

Are you there? Can you hear me? Somewhere near me?
In the morning, long ago, had to hold you so close, had to never let go.
Time on the river sliding on by. Hard to believe, wink of an eye.

Where’d you go, Baby Buffalo?

~James Taylor – song lyrics from Baby Buffalo

Bull bison laying down

Large bull bison striking a regal pose (click photos to enlarge)

I have always been fascinated by bison – their size, power, protective instincts toward their young, and seemingly total indifference to us humans. Herd size is certainly larger now than when I first started visiting the park, so much so that there are now efforts to control the population to avoid overgrazing in their prime habitats in the park. Plus, the larger the herd, the more conflicts arise with state officials and local ranchers when bison migrate out of the park in winter to graze in areas of lower snow cover. Last winter, park officials and hunters outside the park culled more than 1200 animals from the herd. It is tough for me to accept these management decisions, but that is the agreed-upon Interagency Bison Management Plan at this point. More details on this can be found on the park web site.

Baby bison running

Baby buffalo frolicking in the herd

According to the park web site, “Yellowstone bison currently reproduce and survive at relatively high rates compared to many other large, wild, mammal species. The bison population increases by 10 to 17% every year.” Simply stated, bison are killed each year because there are too many animals in too small a space in the park. It is hard to state these cold statistics in the same post that I am glorifying the beauty and playfulness of baby bison, but that has been the state of bison management in Yellowstone for many years. The good news is that the herd is doing well.

bison cow and calf

Bison calf sticking close to its mother

May and June are the primary birthing months for bison and I took every opportunity to watch them on this trip. Newborn bison weigh 40-50 pounds and are able to move with the herd within a few hours of being born.

Baby bison head shot

Baby buffalo giving me the once over as the herd moves by my parked car

They are a reddish-orange color for the first few months of their life, changing to more brown by the end of summer. When they are active, they tend to frolic and jump or play with other calves in between bouts of nursing. Then they seem to run of gas and plop on the grass and sleep.

Baby bison darker color

Laying down for a nap

Pair of baby bison interacting

A pair of calves nuzzling each other

Baby bison trying to get another to play

It can be tough to get some sleep when another calf wants to play

Baby bison head shot small horns showing 1

The horn buds are more prominent on male calves

Baby bison head in flowers

Cuteness bisonified

A couple of mornings I was out by myself early and enjoyed just sitting and watching (and listening) to these magnificent animals and their playful young. And it wouldn’t be a trip to Yellowstone without a bison jam – a herd moving across or along a roadway. Below is a brief video clip so you can get a feel for what is like sharing the road with these behemoths.

Most of this herd had already walked by us by the time I got my phone out for the video. It can be a bit disconcerting when these huge animals lumber by your car and look into your window as they walk past. But such is the Yellowstone experience – a connection to an iconic animal of the West and a chance to appreciate their power and beauty in their landscape. I can only hope bison managers can figure out some other solutions to these bison population and political issues.

 

Our Special Place

The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know… Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard…To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.

~Barry Lopez

I just returned from eight days in my favorite place, Yellowstone National Park. If you follow this blog, you know I have a love affair with this park and its wildness. I have been to the park over 40 times in the last 30 years, in every season, and still can’t get enough of the scenery, wildlife, and the big skies of Wyoming and Montana (a small part of the park is also in Idaho). Melissa is out there right now with a group of educators on a museum trip, and I know she feels the same way.

I arrived a couple of days ahead of a group of friends and their family, and we spent the first part of our trip in the wildlife-rich area of the Northern Range. My first day, I soon encountered what turned out to be a bear jam at the bridge over the Gardner River. The next morning, there was another bear jam at this same location. Now, look at the first two images and decide what type of bears I saw.

Grizzly 1

My first animal in the park- a blank bear (click photos to enlarge)

Cinnamon Black Bear

My second bear – a blank bear

So, what did you decide? The first sighting was a grizzly bear. Note the shoulder hump and dished facial profile. The second bear is a cinnamon-colored black bear. The facial profile is much straighter from the forehead to the nose, and there is a lack of a shoulder hump (although that can be tricky depending on the angle you see the bear and how it is standing). Unlike here in North Carolina, black bears in Yellowstone vary quite a bit in color. The park web site states that “about 50% of black bears are black in color, others are brown, blond, and cinnamon”. Later in the week we saw a black bear sow (black in color) that had two cubs of the year that were cinnamon.

Red fox at YRPAT

My second animal upon arrival in the park was a beautiful red fox

It turned out to be a very good week for fox sightings with a total of 8 (one or two may have been the same fox on different days). The reduction in coyotes after the reintroduction of wolves in 1995 has apparently led to an increase in the red fox population. Again, from the park web site – there are 3 native subspecies of red foxes in the western United States. Most foxes in the lower 48 states (especially in the eastern and plain states) are a subspecies of fox introduced into this country from Europe in the 1700s and 1800s for fox hunts and fur farms. As luck would have it, a couple of us had the sought-after “three dog day”, where we saw a fox, coyote, and wolf on the same day. Several of us saw the pups at the wolf den along Slough Creek, and I watched the Junction pack chase a herd of bison (but give up after failing to catch a calf twice). But all the wolves were too far away for decent photos.

Pronghorn buck 1

Pronghorn buck

The population of pronghorns seems to have increased in the 30 years I have been visiting the park, especially in the Lamar Valley and Little America areas. This time of year, bands of bucks tend to hang out together in small groups, often practicing their skills for future battles for females. Both sexes have horns, but bucks have longer horns, a black cheek patch, and black nose.

Pronghorn with twins

Pronghorn doe nursing her twin fawns

Pronghorn does are giving birth now and we saw a few females with fawns, most often twins. Mothers nurse their young a few times each day, then leave them laying in cover, in grass or sagebrush areas, and go off to feed, usually staying within a hundred yards or so of the young. Young pronghorn supposedly have no scent and will lay still until you almost step on them before running off. This particular doe may have lost one fawn to a predator (coyotes, wolves, and bears, among others, prey on pronghorn young) as we saw only one young with her later in the week (she was using a particular stretch of sagebrush near the road all week). Adult pronghorns use their keen eyesight and running ability (they can run up to 60 miles per hour) to escape predators.

Uinta squealing

Uinta ground squirrel scolding me from the right…

Uinta squealing 1

from head-on….

Uinta squealing 2

and from the left.

One of the most abundant mammals in the park is the Uinta ground squirrel. These little rodents inhabit open habitats throughout the park and are particularly common in the Mammoth area and out in the sagebrush flats of Lamar. They live in burrows and you see the holes they make scattered throughout the sagebrush flats. Larger holes indicate where something, often a badger, has dug out a ground squirrel for a meal. I think everything preys on these little guys (raptors, snakes, coyotes, badgers, foxes, bears, wolves, and anything else with a taste for meat). That may be why they often perch atop a prominent rock or bush and scan for danger. When they see something, they let out a high-pitched squeak or trill. The fellow above certainly did not approve of me parking so close to his boulder, and he let me, and the rest of the world, know it.

Coyote

Coyote that was being followed by…

Badger

a badger.

A case in point was a coyote I spotted one afternoon near the road in Lamar Valley. When I slowed for a look, one of the teenagers in our group spotted a badger trailing close behind. These two predators will sometimes work in tandem, one taking advantage of anything scared up or missed by the other. We watched the badger for several minutes as it furiously dug a hole in the bank and disappeared. They often dig a new sleeping den every night, and can make short work of that, or digging out a ground squirrel, using their powerful shoulders and claws.

Yellow-bellied marmot watching fox

Yellow-bellied marmot assumes the pose as it watches a red fox nearby

Another, larger, rodent in the park is the yellow-bellied marmot. It looks and acts somewhat like our groundhog, but prefers rockier terrain. This one had spotted a hunting red fox and alerted the area with a sharp whistle, and this somewhat laid back pose.

Red fox at Junction Butter

This red fox just finished caching some food

This fox had caused the marmot to be on alert, but did manage to catch a small rodent (probably a ground squirrel or vole) while we watched. It gulped down its catch and then trotted off. We saw it again a few minutes later with something else in its mouth, which it proceeded to cache by burying it in the dirt. After digging a hole with its front legs and stashing the prize, it used its long nose to scoop and shovel dirt into the hole. The fox even used its nose to pound down the disturbed soil to help hide its future meal. Unfortunately, we also saw foxes that were being fed in one of the towns just outside the park. As is usually the case, this often leads to tragedy as the animals become habituated to humans.

Canyon

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on a rainy day

I admit, I have a preference for the northern part of the park and its wide open vistas, waterways, and abundant wildlife. Once you head into one of the more developed sections around the famed thermal features, life can get a bit more (actually, a lot more) hectic. But, as a ranger once told our group, no matter what you thought you came to see in Yellowstone – the wildlife, the scenery, the incredible skies – you actually came to see the geology. That’s because the incredible geologic past (and present) of this landscape is what has created all of these features and allowed them to be preserved for us to enjoy as the worlds’ first national park. As we headed south, we did, indeed, pick up more crowds, although our stop at Canyon was rather tranquil due to a light rain keeping most people away. In fact, this was probably the second wettest trip in all my years of going to the park. We even had two days with snow! I would definitely trade this NC heat for some of that cool June weather.

Old Faithful crowds

The bleachers at Old Faithful are full, waiting for “the show”

Our day in the geyser basins proved more typical of summer – large crowds, limited parking, and some not-so-great visitor behavior including walking off boardwalks in thermal areas and getting way too close to large animals for selfies.

Mud pot bubble

Bubbling mud at Fountain Paint Pots

Mud pot bubble 1

Aliens in the mud

Fountain Paint Pots continues to impress me, partly due to my fascination with the mud pots and my obsession to photograph interesting shapes as the mud bubbles pop. I was unable to walk my favorite thermal feature, Grand Prismatic, because there was no parking, so I had to drop off my folks and let them walk while I waited down the road to return and pick them up. Still, even from several hundred yards away, the prismatic pool lives up to its name with rainbow colors rising in the dense steam above this, the largest hot spring in the park.

This is the first of a couple of posts about this trip that I will try to get to this week. Looking through the images helps me to relive those moments, to find peace in knowing that these wild creatures and wild places still exist. And, in spite of the crowds, Yellowstone is a place where we can all find something we need now more than ever – a chance to experience the best that our planet offers to those willing to just take the time to walk, watch, and listen. Below are a few of the other wild creatures we encountered last week. I’ll post something about the birds and the ubiquitous bison soon.

Chipmunk with dandelion seed head close up

A chipmunk grazes on wildflower seeds

Red squirrel and cone

Red squirrel with a mouthful outside my cabin in Silver Gate

Columbia spotted frog

A Columbia spotted frog, one of only 5 species of amphibians in the park (in 2014, a breeding population of Plains spadefoot toad was found in the park, raising the number to 5)

Bull elk laying down

Bull elk in velvet taking a siesta

Bull moose

One of many moose we saw in the northeast section of the park and vicinity