Spring in Yellowstone? How Can You Tell?

Blowing snow, blowing wind….freezing my tush off.  Springtime in Yellowstone.

A ghostly coyote wanders through the blowing snow.   I don’t imagine he’s too impressed with the weather, either.


The trade off, of course, is an empty park.   And gorgeous skies.

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And being able to watch a couple of wolves without the accompanying crowds.


Nonetheless, there are signs of spring.

Flocks of Mountain Bluebirds flit from bush to bush, flashes of turquoise among the gray-green sagebrush.

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Sandhill Cranes rattle overhead, and one decides to land at the Blacktail Ponds.



The Northern Flickers — who have been around all winter — have decided that it’s time to impress a mate.  They are paired up, doing their silly little dance and flashing their bright orange tail feathers at each other.



The elk did their mating in the fall, which is a good thing, because the males look pretty silly right now.

He looks embarrassed, doesn't he?

He looks embarrassed, doesn’t he?

And the bears.  Even if we don’t see them, we know they’re awake…

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Posted in Adventure, Hiking, Montana, Nature, Wildlife, Yellowstone | Tagged , , | 19 Comments

March Gladness

The snow geese are landing, the eagles are in their nests, and the meadowlarks have found their favorite fence posts.  Nature keeps on truckin’, and all’s well in this little corner of the world…





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Happy spring!

Posted in Birding, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Photography | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Beware the Pesky Glochids and Other Tips from the Desert Southwest

Cacti have spines.  I know that.   I mean, it’s really pretty obvious.

Don't reach for that nest.  Unless you're a cactus wren.

Don’t reach for that nest. Unless you’re a cactus wren.

What I didn’t know until too late is that some cacti have really tiny spines: so tiny that you don’t notice them.  It would have helped to know this before my husband pointed out a prickly pear that looked strangely smooth – so strangely smooth that I just had to reach out and run my hand along the paddle.

Don’t do that.

Now I know that there really aren’t any cacti without spines.  Some have good upfront stout ones, that warn you ahead of time to not touch.  Others – the sneaky little devils – have fine little spines called glochids, and they are one pain in the butt (or wherever) to get out.  I’ve since learned from my desert-savvy friends that we would have been wise to carry duct tape on our desert hikes to get the zillions of little spines out.  (Of course, the wisest move would be not to touch things you don’t know about.  I know that…now.)

So just how do the desert birds manage to avoid being impaled?  They seem oblivious to their spiky surroundings.





In addition to learning lessons the hard way, we did find some unexpected gems on our recent southwest jaunt, which I’m happy to share:

Favorite campsite in Death Valley:  Mesquite Springs, at the northern end of the park.  At 1,800 feet in elevation it’s a bit cooler than the campgrounds at Furnace Creek, but it’s nice and small, with lots of great country to explore.

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Good Birding:     Salton Sea and the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge.  We had no plans to go here, but I’m so glad we did.  Thousands of shorebirds, along with other great desert birds.

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Nice place to get away from everyone and relax in the desert:  Kofa Wildlife Refuge.  Good skies here, too!

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Favorite combo of cute little town, Sonoran Desert and a dandy National Monument:  Ajo, Arizona and Organ Pipe National Monument.    Camp at Alamo Canyon campground in the monument: you’ll need to stop at the Visitor Center to reserve a spot, but it’s worth it.

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Next on the agenda: find the migrating Snow Geese!


Posted in Hiking, Nature, Outdoors, Southwest hikes | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

Sun, Sky and Snow: A Winter Day in Yellowstone

Breaking trail on a perfect winter day in Yellowstone.

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Wolves up there?

Wolves up there?

Nope.  Bighorns!

Nope. Bighorns!

What about these?

What about these?


Yep! Far away, though.


Bobcat trail.

Bobcat trail.



See you in the Spring, Yellowstone!

Posted in Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Wildlife, Yellowstone | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Now You See Me…

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

Score.     I took a quick picture.


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


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


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


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



Posted in Birding, Montana, Nature, Photography, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 22 Comments

Tracking the Toughest Critter Out There


US Fish and Wildlife Service Photo

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

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

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

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


More scat.


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

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




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


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

Posted in Adventure, Hiking, Montana, Nature, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

The Eyes Have It

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


It can be pretty creepy.

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


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



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


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


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








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


A grizzly bear, though….

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



Posted in Birding, Life, Nature, Outdoors, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 18 Comments