Busy Days at the Heron Rookery

If only we would all get along as well as the birds I’ve been watching this month at the heron rookery.

In early March the Canada Geese were busy checking out the various nests in the rookery, apparently staking their claims to the choice spots.  It’s hard to imagine how the little goslings manage to survive the leap from these high nests, but apparently some do, since I’ve seen the geese nesting there for many years.


Each year I’ve been sure that there will be fights when the herons return, but if there are, I haven’t seen them.    The geese and the herons just seem to enjoy hanging out together.


Actually, the herons spend more time fussing with each other than they do with the geese. These two were sparring with each other for the better part of an hour, until one finally got tired and left this prime perch to the winner.



But it’s not just geese and herons sharing this real estate.  Remember the Great Horned Owl I’ve been seeing this winter?    She’s decided that the rookery is a dandy place to nest as well!


I’ve been watching her for weeks, always keeping an eye out for her mate.  I’ve been scanning the surrounding trees every time I go to the rookery, but no luck.  Until yesterday.


Finally!  Probably been on that same branch the whole time.



What a place!

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The Hungry Griz

Imagine you’re a big old Yellowstone grizzly bear who’s just woken after your winter sleep.  Food. You need food.

Now imagine that you’re lucky enough to be wandering around the Blacktail Ponds in Yellowstone on an early spring day, and you discover a bison that fell into one of the ponds this winter and couldn’t get out. Score!  He’s thawing out, and he’s yours!

You drag him from the water, and eat your first good meal in months.   It’s hard work, this scavenging for dinner, so you cover up your prize and lay down for a bit of a snooze.


But something wakes you up.  Dang, you’re not alone.


What is it?


Need a better look…



Oh, jeez.  It’s that danged coyote.


Gotta get this thing covered more.  Maybe he won’t notice it…


Grrrrrr….two of them!


Just keep working.  They’ll leave.


Good grief.  Now an eagle?   Not fair.






At least the coyote is helping.  He doesn’t want the eagle there either.



Lordy, this is dirty work.  Gotta clean these paws.


Exhausting.  Maybe another little nap…



(Postscript):  Mr Grizzly eventually had his fill – for the time-being anyway – and left the carcass.    Later that afternoon the coyotes came in, one by one, and they and the ravens had quite a feast.   Not sure if the young eagle ever got a share or not!


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The Owl and the Fox

Once upon a time, in a small woods on the edge of a big pond, there lived a wise old owl and a curious young fox.    The owl, who had lived in the woods for many years, knew that he should only come out at night.  He wanted to see what was happening in the woods and at the nearby farm, but it wasn’t safe.  So during the day he stayed perfectly still, hidden in the branches of a gnarly old cottonwood.


He was hidden so well that people, and dogs, and yes…even foxes….walked  right by him without a clue that he was there.

Every so often he’d move into the open – just a bit – and calmly look down on the activity below him.


And the fox?  Well, the fox couldn’t resist.  He wanted to know what was going on in his woods, and over at the farm, and out on the frozen pond, and he trotted all over the place, leaving his marks everywhere.



He was curious, that’s for sure, and when a visitor spied him on one of his jaunts he stopped and stared right back at her.

And when she followed his tracks and found him at his den, he was just as curious as she was.



He finally decided that he should go into the woods, away from this strange creature.  But his curiosity got the best of him and he just had to come back and give her another look.


The visitor saw him the next day, as well, when he was sharing his breakfast with a new friend.


Meanwhile, the wise old owl continues to keep an eye on things…


And the visitor?  She’ll keep watching as well…






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The Wait: Life and Death in Yellowstone

The coyote is waiting.


The eagles are waiting.




The wolf-watchers are waiting.


Even the wolves are waiting, off in the distance beyond the trees.


It’s a death-watch.  We’re all watching a wounded bull elk, waiting to see what will happen next.  He’s bedded down in a patch of willows in the Lamar Valley, and he’s been there for days.  Three days earlier the Lamar Canyon pack chased him, and one of them caught him on his hind end, wounding him.    Coyotes circle the elk, but don’t come too close; he’s still dangerous.  We can just see his antlers sticking up above the brush.


One wolf comes closer, accompanied by a greedy raven.


But he retreats back behind the trees.


We join the waiting wolf-watchers.  It feels morbid, but none of us want to look away.

Late in the afternoon another bull elk appears over a ridge.


He seems to know that his comrade is in trouble below him, and he beds down on the ridge to join the wait.

The sun is sinking, and it’s getting colder by the minute.  Eventually the wolf-watchers leave, and we’re left alone with the coyotes and the eagles and the wolves…watching and waiting.

And…as darkness falls, the elk is still hanging on.    We can’t come back in the morning, so this is one nature drama that we’ll have to leave unresolved.


(UPDATE):  I checked Yellowstone Reports, a wildlife blog that I subscribe to, and discovered that the elk hung on for nearly a week after we saw him.  The Park Service moved the carcass because it was too close to the road, and the Lamar Canyon Pack finally got their meal.



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Malheur Wildlife Refuge

Seems like an appropriate time to re-post this.

Off the Beaten Path: Hikes, Backpacks, and Travels


I’m standing on the edge of the Blitzen River, watching – and being watched by – a pair of Northern Harriers.  I think they must have a nest nearby, since they don’t seem to like the fact that I’m hanging around.

The female does a couple of fly-bys, checking me out.  The third time, she is vocal in her displeasure: she doesn’t want me there.


That spurs her partner into action.  He screeches a response and circles me as well, giving me the evil eye on the first pass and diving at my head on the second.  I swing my arms and he veers off, but I’m duly chastened.    I get the heck out of there.


The Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon is a grand birding destination, especially in early May before the mosquitoes have woken up.  It’s an oasis in the high desert, with hundreds of bird…

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The Christmas Tree Hunt

We’ve hunted the wild Christmas tree nearly every year since 1983.   We head into the National Forest, hunting tag in hand, and look for that perfect evergreen to bring into our house and remind us that there is still life under all that cold and snow.

As with all hunting,  there are rules. You don’t just go out and take down that beautiful lone spruce in the middle of a meadow.     You want to find a nice congested batch of young trees that need some thinning.  Take down one of those, and the surrounding trees will have a better chance.

Which means that our Christmas trees usually are pretty Charlie Brown-ish, and we’ve often resorted to cutting extra boughs and drilling holes in the trunk to fill in the bare spots.   Even so, we passed on this one – too many naked spots!


The thing is, with all that snow on them, you can’t really tell what’s underneath.


And when it’s really cold, the hunt is just plain torture.  My first Christmas in Montana we headed out from our apartment – walking – on Christmas Eve.  It was about a mile to the National Forest, and by the time we found our scraggly tree and turned back, I was just about hysterical from the cold.   Head down, I trudged behind Bill, cursing Montana the whole way.  We got into town, and the bank thermometer was slowly blinking:  -36.    I’m amazed I stayed.

This year, though, was perfect.  We’ve found a spot in the Elkhorn Mountains that burned in 1988, and the trees are filling in there way too thickly, so there are plenty of nice choices.    The snow was deep, the temperature in the 20s, and we had a grand day.

We snowshoed up the hillside, looking for a nice thick stand of trees.




We have tall ceilings, so we can fit a tall tree.    This year, we found a gorgeous one in the middle of a dense group of firs.


We thanked the tree for letting us cut him, and were on our way.


Merry Christmas and Happy Solstice, everyone!



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The Montana Bird Project

Sounds impressive, eh?   Surely The Montana Bird Project has the sponsorship of the Nature Conservancy or Audubon.   It even sounds like there are concurrent projects going on in every state, all leading up to a whiz-bang finish: The American Bird Project!

Well, no.  It’s actually My Montana Bird Project, which I’m pretty sure is not going to bring in the funding from the big boys.

The Eastern Kingbirds are all a-twitter about it, though.


Luckily, it’s pretty low-budget.   Here’s the goal:  to get a photograph of every species of bird in Montana.  In, say, the next 150 years.  Depending on how long I last, of course.

There are 429 species of birds in Montana. That’s a lot.  So far, I’ve nabbed 162 of them.  The first 75 or so were a piece of cake: robins, chickadees (although I’m still on the hunt for a Chestnut-backed), magpies, crows…all those guys we see all the time.     Then it got a bit more difficult, but stalking migrating waterfowl in the spring was pretty rewarding.  I’ve got all the grebes, for example. (Yay, me!)  Here’s my favorite grebe.  (Remember these guys?)


But the danged  sparrows.    There are twenty species of sparrow.  And yes, they all look alike.    OK, not really.  But here’s a Song Sparrow and a Vesper Sparrow.    Different, sure, but not when they’re flitting around the bushes.

Vesper Sparrow

And there are 15 species of owls!  I had no idea.   So far I have six of them.  I’m especially pleased when I find a batch of babies.

Great horned owl

I keep hearing about a Northern Pygmy Owl hanging out near town, but so far, no luck.

My favorites are the birds that are full of personality.  That Kingbird family, for example, or this cheeky young Sandhill Crane who seemed to be sassing his mother:





Or this Western Kingbird who just looked plain crabby:


Sometimes the birds take on magical poses, like this levitating Wilson’s Warbler:

Wilson's Warbler

The search has even led me to capture some odd bird behavior, like the tiny Yellow Warbler madly feeding the giant Cowbird baby who had infiltrated her nest.

Warbler and cowbird (1)

The hunt slows down in the winter, of course, but just last weekend I got my first Horned Larks, all puffed up and trying hard to stay warm on a 10 degree day.

Horned Larks

When I get that Pygmy Owl, you’ll all be the first to know!


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Too Close

November’s grizzlies have one thing on  their mind: food.    They’re on a mission, and I am not interested in getting in their way.

The griz we saw a couple of weeks ago was definitely on a mission.  He was truckin’ through a meadow, about 30 feet from the road when we saw him.


As we pulled over, I was shocked when a young guy came running past us with his phone in his hand:  he was chasing the bear!


As we watched, he actually went down the slope to get closer to the bear as it came around the trees.  He was only about 15 feet from a big grizzly.  What the heck?


The bear ignored him.    But still.

And he wasn’t the only one.  Another guy was out of his car, angling for a good shot.  He had a longer lens, so he couldn’t get too close and get a picture.  But he stayed put when the bear detoured around the phone guy and came up to the road.


What kind of photo could he have gotten?  A close-up of his fur?

We drove ahead, and pulled off again, waiting to see where the bear would re-appear.  I stayed near my open door, and was back in the pickup the minute he appeared in the woods.    What would I do if a bear appeared this close to me while I was hiking?  I wouldn’t be taking a picture, that’s for sure!


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Up Coyote Gulch: In Through the Crack in the Wall and Out the Scary “Sneaker Route”

I’m clinging to a sandstone fin, a hundred feet above Coyote Gulch.  Stuck.  Can’t go up, can’t go down, should be able to creep sideways, but that would involve looking down, and I don’t think that’s a good idea.


Luckily – as usual – my husband comes to the rescue.  Mountain Goat Bill climbs to the little ledge above me, is able to give me a hand, and I’m unstuck.

I’ve since read that this climb is what’s known as a Class 3 Scramble, which means that you probably won’t die if you fall, but you would likely “sustain severe bodily injury.”


Here’s a photo of the fin, but I don’t think it shows how scary the climb is for us non-climbers:

Looking down from the Jacob Hamblin Arch exit from Coyote Gulch.

Looking down from the Jacob Hamblin Arch exit from Coyote Gulch.

I did find a great blog (Canyoneering.Wordpress.com) that includes a much better photo.  Here’s the link:

Great photo of the climb out of Coyote Gulch from Jacob Hamblin Arch.

See?  Scary.

Of course, there’s more to Coyote Gulch than just a few scary moments.  We’d been before, entering and exiting through Hurricane Wash,  but this time we wanted to do a loop, and that meant entering through the “Crack in the Wall” which puts you almost at the confluence with the Escalante River.

Bill checking out our route at the Crack in the Wall.

Bill checking out our route at the Crack in the Wall.

The Crack in the Wall is an adventure in itself.   The crack is really three “cracks” made up of three huge slabs of sandstone that have broken away from the cliff face.  It’s a two mile hike across the mesa top to get to the cliff, and then you need to drop down about 8 feet into the narrow first crack.    Dropping into a crack in the earth: not something I’m overly fond of.  Luckily, the first crack is not too long, and it’s the widest, so it’s really not that hard.


I’m not looking too thrilled, am I?

The second crack is pretty easy, too.  The third one, however, is really narrow, which means backpacks usually can’t fit through.    Luckily there’s a ledge in between the cracks so you can lower your backpacks down before you squeeze your way through.

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Once through the cracks, you hike down a huge sand dune to the gulch.  This long dune is the main reason you don’t want to do this hike in the opposite direction.  (Coming down the scary fin is another: always scarier to come down a steep slope than to go up it!)

You get a great view of Stevens Arch on the way down.


We camped not far after we’d entered Coyote Gulch.  A lot of folks seem to do this hike in one night, but I think at least two is better.  There’s a lot to see down there.   The campsite is just downstream from a nice spring, and it’s one of the best in the gulch.  My coffee cup gave it a thumbs up.

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The next day we hiked up the gulch, exporing along the way.  There are pictographs to be found, but we’ve missed them both times.  Next time.

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We camped near Jacob Hamblin Arch, which is the focal point of the gulch.  It’s an incredible sight: massive and brooding.  There’s even a lovely year-round spring near the arch, so it’s a great place to camp.  Of course, we’re not the only ones to think that, so you’ll rarely have it to yourself.  But still.


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If I hadn’t been so nervous about the impending climb out, I would have liked to stay another day and do a bit more exploring.  But hanging around waiting to be scared doesn’t work too well for me.  So the third morning we started up.   The first twenty feet of the climb is pretty much straight up, but there are some good foot and hand holds, so that wasn’t too difficult for me.  The next hundred feet is pretty much straight up a steep slickrock slope.  You can get a good grip on slickrock, but there are still a few places where you need to pull yourself up and over.   There is an anchor at the top where you could tie a rope, and it probably would have been wise for us to do that:  I could have used it to help me get over those few extra steep spots.    Oh, and it absolutely helped to have my sherpa-husband who actually climbed the route three times: once without a pack to lead me up, and two more times with each of our packs!

Hooray for a brave and strong partner!

Posted in Adventure, Backpacking, Hiking, Nature, Southwest hikes | Tagged , , , , | 29 Comments

Small Wonders

Montana is full of big wonders: the grizzlies, the elk, the moose, the huge mountains and the equally huge sky.    We visit Yellowstone and look for wolves and bears, and hope that we’ll be one of the few visitors to witness Steamboat Geyser erupting for the first time in 20 years: we want the big stuff!

But it’s the small wonders that actually make up our lives.  And they can be pretty wonderful, indeed.

A foggy morning in the Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley, for instance.

RSCN9276 And watching the landscape emerge as the fog lifts: another small wonder. 



Or the setting sun reflected in clouds over the Yellowstone River on a calm September evening.


But you don’t need to be in Yellowstone to witness small wonders.  Take, for example, a couple of prairie lakes in Montana with deceptively dull names:  Brown’s Lake and Arod Lake.    They sit quietly on the edge of the mountains, not flashy, not drawing attention to themselves in any way.  But they are full of wonders.


Brown’s Lake sits at the edge of the Scapegoat Wilderness, and it’s a favorite nesting ground for both Red-necked and Pied-billed Grebes in the early summer.

DSCN6589 RSCN6644 RSCN6681 Camp overnight, and you’ll be visited by deer and osprey, and probably a bald eagle or two.

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And then the sun will set.  It happens every day, so I guess it qualifies as “merely” a small wonder.  But…wow.


Arod Lake is further north, along the Rocky Mountain Front.  It’s truly in the middle of the prairie, and the huge expanse of prairie and sky makes you feel pretty tiny.


Pelicans and cormorants and gulls nest here, and the noise in the evening as the adults return to the colonies can be…well, a bit on the loud side.


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The sun going down behind storm clouds over the Rocky Mountain Front: another small wonder.


Small wonders everywhere.  What are yours?

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