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Posts about Yellowstone animals, insects, and wildflowers and other plants.

Observing the American dipper

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(Part II of Billy Hofer’s article, continued from yesterday)

[The American dipper’s] plumage is dense and compact, and is moreover well protected by a coat of oil, which he often renews from the large oil sack with which he is provided. So the dipper never gets wet, and we may conclude never takes cold, although he passes the winter about the open places of mountain torrents as far north as Alaska. His food, which he secures from the bottom of the stream, consists mainly of aquatic insects, and although his first cousin who inhabits Northern Europe has been accused of feeding on the spawn of trout and salmon, there is not a particle of evidence to sustain the grave charge.

The dipper dives into the water and gets to the bottom as soon as possible, and by means of rapid wing beats and holding on to the stones and gravel with his feet resists the constant tendency to shoot up through the water to the air above. He vigorously turns over the stones and sticks, and secures the water insects and aquatic larvae which are found in such situations, and then when he requires breath comes to the surface again. He presents a queer appearance when at the bottom, where he seems to be tumbling about in the most curious and erratic way, now for a moment stationary, and again being swept away by the force of the stream. No doubt he makes a good living, for he always seems busy, contented and cheerful.

The dipper seems to be satisfied with his own company for the greater part of the year, but during the breeding season he perforce seeks a mate, and these two build their nest close to the water’s edge, under a bank or the roots of a tree, and often amid the spray of some brawling cascade. The structure is as curious in its way as its architects. It is lined with twigs or fine, dry grass, and completely covered on the outside by an arched roof of fine green moss, which is kept fresh and living by the moisture of its surroundings, or sometimes perhaps by the birds themselves, who, it is said, after emerging from the water, fly to the roof of the nest and, alighting there, vigorously shake the drops from their feathers over the mossy covering.

– – – – –
I am quoting this from Hofer’s “Through Two-Ocean Pass,” Part XII, April 9, pages 202–3, Forest and Stream magazine, in fifteen parts, January 29 through April 30, 1885.

A delightful bird found in Yellowstone, the American dipper

Categories: Flora and Fauna, Through Early Yellowstone, Wildlife
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(Part I)
There’s a rather small and plain bird that I’ve loved to watch whenever I’m lucky enough to be in the Western mountains. Formerly called the water ouzel, the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) shows up on pages 337–38 of Yellowstone Treasures in a quote from Owen Wister. But there’s a longer story I came across in an old Forest and Stream magazine.
320px-American_DipperPhoto from Wikipedia Commons

The winter adventurer, Billy Hofer—whose story of an incredible 1887 ski trip through Yellowstone will appear in my forthcoming anthology, Through Early Yellowstone—must have done some research on dippers, although he does not tell us that. His delightful story about them, written two years before his winter trip, is one that all bird watchers can appreciate. Here’s what he wrote 130 years ago.

[American dippers are] curious little drab-colored birds, progressing with an odd bobbing motion along the water’s edge, or taking short flights from one almost submerged rock to the next.

[The bird ranges from] Alaska to Mexico, and it only insists on clear streams among the mountains. On such brooks and rivers as fulfill these conditions the dipper is found in abundance—though it is not a particularly sociable bird, and seems rather to prefer to be alone—and its cheerful song and remarkable habits render it a pleasing feature alike of the dark cañons and of the open sunlit glens.

One feels a ludicrous sensation of astonishment when first observing this species. It is not very surprising to see a bird sitting upon the water or flying above it, dive beneath its surface, but it is really startling to see one calmly walk down a shelving rock or a smooth beach into the water, and keep on without any apparent attempt at swimming or diving, until it has disappeared. It wholly upsets one’s ideas of specific gravity, for we are accustomed to think that birds and mammals will naturally float, and that to dive or disappear beneath the water requires some apparent effort. It is not so with the dipper, however. He marches deliberately into the turbulent water, which engulfs him and usually sweeps him several feet down the stream before he bobs up serenely to the surface, and either takes wing or sculls himself ashore. It must not be supposed that he always enters the water in this way. Quite as often he dives from the wing or from the surface of the stream, but perhaps the method which he likes best is to plunge from the top of a high rock or a log a foot or two above the current, and then, after his battle with the torrent, return to the same perch, from which at intervals he trills his simple though very sweet song.

His method of progression under water is like that of most, if not all, diving birds, by means of the wings. His feet are not better adapted fro swimming than those of a robin, and although he gets along capitally when sculling about the edges of the mountain holes, they would be of little service to him under water except sometimes as anchors. He flies under the water therefore with nearly open wings, and gets about very actively.

(To be continued tomorrow.)

What are the different species of mammals in Yellowstone Park?

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On the website Quora.com, someone recently asked about the mammals one sees in Yellowstone Park, so I tried my hand at an answer. I’m not a real animal person, being more enamored with things that stay in one place like geysers, hot springs, flowers, lakes, waterfalls, and mountains, yet I have personally seen all but the rarer animals in my many visits to Yellowstone.

The big mammals—sometimes called “charismatic megafauna” with tongue in cheek—are the bison (around 4000 currently), the elk (8,000 to 10,000), the moose (very scarce, and more often seen in neighboring Grand Teton National Park), and both grizzly and black bear (several hundred of each).

The gray wolf population is hovering around 100. Mule deer are much more common than white-tailed deer. Then there’s the pronghorn (commonly but incorrectly called antelope)—my favorite animal for being so beautiful, graceful, and fast. Their population fluctuates around a couple of hundred seen in northern Yellowstone, as are bighorn sheep.

Pronghorn

Pronghorn

Coyotes are very common, less so the red foxes and mountain goats (the latter considered to be migrants to the park). Mountain lions, bobcats, and especially lynx are there but almost never seen.

Small carnivores you might see include badgers, river otters, and raccoons. Then there are the most common rodents: yellow-bellied marmots, Uinta ground squirrels, muskrats, red squirrels, and the tiny pikas or coneys. Beaver have become more numerous in recent years.

Pika

Pika

And this is just a sampling. There are many smaller mammals like voles, mice, bats, and shrews.

“The Wild Lab” of Yellowstone Park

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Today I’m thinking about Yellowstone’s animals, the “charismatic megafauna”—an expression that makes me smile. And I’m anticipating being able to present my first-ever guest blog, by my friend Rita Reining. Rita took part in a late season wolf-watching seminar this winter given by the Yellowstone Institute. Their next winter’s classes are not yet listed but will be up by August or September.

YT174 copy
Wolf picture from “Yellowstone Treasures,” page 351

Awaiting her article, I’ll pass on some thoughts inspired by a Science Magazine article, “Lessons from the Wild Lab,” March 20, 2015, pages 1302–7.

A video circulating on the Web a few months ago attributed recent changes in Yellowstone’s environment to the reintroduction of gray wolves, beginning in 1995. The video seemed to claim that the observed changes, all the way through the animal and plant kingdoms to the re-channeling of rivers, were due to predation on elk by wolves. However, according to writer Virginia Morell from Yellowstone, scientists disagree as to whether or not the coming of the wolves was the only trigger for observed changes “in species from elk to coyotes to willows to bison to beavers.” She cites cougars, grizzly bears, and drought as partners in the park’s transformation.

Wolves and cougars were both extirpated by the early 1930s. Coyotes, however, have been protected from 1936 on—a discrimination in the ruling that I have never understood, since these smaller canids can also prey on animals as large as deer or (very occasionally) elk and have even been known to attack humans.

In addition to the larger predators, Douglas W. Smith, the Yellowstone Wolf Project leader, who has studied wolves for more than three decades, says that smaller predators and humans should be factored in to the great depletion of the elk herd since wolves came to the park.

Here are a few megafauna statistics from Morell’s article:

Elk:
1994, more than 19,000 in the northern range of Yellowstone
2008, just over 6,000

Cougars (known in the park):
1972, almost none
1995, estimated at 15 to 20
2015, estimated at about 35, a “natural experiment,” according to Morell, “but they are
rarely seen and do not howl”

Bison:
1997 (after slaughter of 1,000), about 1,600
2004, over 4,000
2014, 4,900

Beaver colonies:
2014, 12 (but the
park website
) gives 112 beaver colonies in 2011.)*

Wolves:
1994, none
2013, 95 in the park; 34 on the northern range

Human visitors:
2014: 3.6 million.

– – – – –
*From the NPS Yellowstone website: “The increase [in beavers] has occurred throughout the park and is likely related to the resurgence in willow since the late 1990s, at least on the northern range, and possibly in the park interior.”

Why not plan a fall trip to the park?

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aspens in autumn

Aspens turn golden in the fall.

Does it make sense to visit Yellowstone in the autumn months? Of course! Fall is short but wonderful in Yellowstone National Park. The month of September and part of October make up Yellowstone’s autumn; because of the high altitude, after about mid October there are likely to be more snowy days than warm ones.

Autumn is when the bull elk are bugling their unearthly sounds to assert their dominance over the area (and over the cows), bears are coming to the lower altitudes to forage for the foods they need to gorge on before hibernation, and the aspen trees are turning golden. Best of all, the visitors have thinned out remarkably.

Planned road construction

But this year you really need to take two road closures into account when you plan your trip. It helps to look at the maps I link to at the bottom of this post to see how much of a detour you may need to take.

Road closure no. 1

The road linking Old Faithful with West Thumb and Grant Village will be closed for the season starting 6 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 2, so the bridge at Isa Lake can be removed and replaced.

This road closure will require visitors traveling between the South Entrance and Old Faithful or West Yellowstone to detour through Fishing Bridge Junction and Canyon, increasing the travel time by approximately two hours.

Despite the closure, visitors will still be able to drive south from Old Faithful as far as the trailhead to Lone Star Geyser and north from West Thumb Junction to access the DeLacy Creek trailhead.

Road closure no. 2

In addition, the road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris will be closed due to construction from 11 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, until 7 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 30.

During this closure, travel between Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris will require a detour through Tower Junction and Canyon, a drive of approximately 90 minutes. Visitors traveling between Mammoth Hot Springs and West Yellowstone should plan on the trip taking approximately two and a half hours.

See “Construction Work to Result in Yellowstone Road Closures after Labor Day” on the National Park Service website for more.
—Editor Beth

CREDIT: The photo is by Leslie Kilduff.

Janet celebrates her 75th anniversary in the park, part 4

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Continuing from “Janet celebrates her 75th anniversary in the park, part 3” . . .

ranger station museum Old Faithful 1953My sister Joan was a life-long games person, becoming a fine contract bridge player and a tournament Scrabble player in her later years, besides making games out of every chore in her life—including the routines she recommended to her piano pupils. She could make a game out of anything, including something as simple as balancing on the logs that surrounded the Old Faithful Ranger Station and Museum. We would collect state names on license plates to see if we could find at least one car from each of the then 48 states. And we played lots of card games and board games, too.

As often as Mother would allow it, we would go into the museum to mosey around and talk to the rangers. One of the rangers called us “Dimples.” Perhaps he was the same one who gave us a copy of Cubby in Wonderland by Frances Joyce Farnsworth and signed it “From Ben Lundquist, 1942.” We loved that book and its sequel, Cubby Returns. Some years ago I read those books to my grandsons.

I remember the specimens of park rocks in the museum and the samples of plant matter such as the cones and needles from the different evergreens of the park. There were a few small stuffed animals. I think there was a large bear, too, but I’m not sure about that. I would have stayed well away from it.

I also remember the model of a geyser, but I don’t think I ever saw it working. (I have read somewhere that Jack Haynes built a geyser model, and perhaps it is still in the archives. But I have found a reference (in Yellowstone Nature Notes, July 30, 1926) to models made by Chief Naturalist Ansel F. Hall and placed at Old Faithful and Mammoth. [See my September 13, 2010, post on this blog for the exhibits you can now find at the new Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.]

In back of the ranger station and museum was an amphitheater with a screen (now part of the huge west parking lot). I don’t remember the pictures shown on the screen or the subjects of the rangers’ talks, but I do remember well the sing-alongs that always ended the evenings. I know we sang “Home on the Range” and “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” and many others.

Our local world was bounded by the Inn, the bunkhouse, the museum, and the geyser, but I remember that a favorite place where Joan and I played was around the bridge over the Firehole River behind the geyser. To this day I am strongly attracted to that spot, and I always spend a little time there early in the morning when I visit Old Faithful.

More from Janet’s memoirs in the last post of this series . . . .
CREDIT: The photo of the Old Faithful Museum is from the Haynes Guide, 1953.


The full article “Celebrating an Old Faithful Area Seventieth Anniversary,” was published in August 2009 in The Geyser Gazer Sput, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 5-8.
Janet wrote a longer version of these memoirs at the instigation of Park Historian Lee Whittlesey, and they are now preserved in the library of the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in Gardiner, Montana.

What to say about an idyllic three days in the Lamar Valley enjoying and learning more about Yellowstone wildflowers? Even in seasons without so many flowers the valley is one of my favorite places anywhere.

Whenever I’m there, I can never get enough of the changing light as you look up the valley to Saddle Mountain and its neighboring peaks or across the river to Specimen Ridge. But this green early summer with bison grazing everywhere is really special.

Also special in every way was the Yellowstone Institute class called The Art of Wildflower Identification. Instructor Meredith Campbell is not just knowledgeable about botany and a fine artist. She is wonderfully qualified to patiently teach us about keying in Rocky Mountain wildflowers as well as about some techniques of drawing and using color. We were using a little booklet that asks us specific questions about the leaves and flowers and (sometimes!) leads us to identify the one we are looking at.

This was my third time for taking this class, but the second was seven years ago, and I need lots of review. Special for me this year were the other members of the class, who included the current Mammoth Clinic doctor (also trained as an architect and capable of lovely flower drawings), several caring people who work for the park service or for the Yellowstone Association, and others with interesting backgrounds and reasons for being there. They were particularly kind to me as by far the oldest class member.

It hardly mattered that it rained on and off for the first two days and the third was sunny—but when we went partway up Mt. Washburn seeking subalpine flowers, we encountered a strong cold wind. You never know what to expect in the mountains.

I am hoping I can soon add a Lamar Valley picture to this post, one taken by Kathie Lynch, who spends so much time studying Lamar wolves that her license plate is “YNP WOLF.” She writes interesting reports about the park’s wolves on The Wildlife News.

In a few days I’ll fly to Idaho Falls for a brief visit with a friend before I drive to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in northeastern Yellowstone for my Yellowstone Institute class. This is a class called The Art of Wildflower Identification, taught by Meredith Campbell. I’ve taken the class twice before and simply loved it.

We start with the elementary botany of flowers, and since for me it’s always quite a few years between these classes, I can use all the review I can get. Meredith also shows us some techniques for drawing with our colored pencils. Then we’re off for three days in various outstanding fields of flowers that she’s found in advance.

Here is a forget-me-not, a sample of the wonderful flower drawings by Mary Vaux Walcott in the 1920s (from page 352 in Yellowstone Treasures):

Mary Vaux Walcott watercolor of flower

—and my best effort at drawing a clematis during the 2007 class:

Clematis by Janet, 2007

Clematis by Janet, 2007

You can see why I need more classes!

Muskrat in a kettle pond

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Can’t resist sharing this cute picture of a muskrat in a Yellowstone kettle pond with you. What’s a kettle pond, you may ask? Here’s what the Yellowstone Treasures glossary has to say: “A pond formed in a depression caused by the ground collapsing when a buried block of glacial ice melted. Also called kettle hole.” The melting snow of the caption to this National Park Service photo is just this past winter’s. The hole is much older.

You can find out more about how glaciers reshape the landscape on the illustrated pages 311-312 of the “Geological History” chapter in the guidebook.

—Editor Beth

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What to do on this website

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lance-leaved stonecrop

Lance-leaved stonecrop

Besides finding out about the Yellowstone Treasures guidebook and learning of news in the Yellowstone area on Janet Chapple’s author blog, what else can you do on this website?

If you have kids, you can explore what it would be like to travel with them to the park in “Taking the family to Yellowstone Park” and “Itinerary for a family trip.” And now there’s another activity for kids: go to the new “Color a Wildflower” page to find coloring pages for the flowering plants and trees that grow in Yellowstone. In fact, one of the ones you can print out and color is the stonecrop, pictured above. If you want to be sure your pictures are botanically accurate, you can even use the coloring guide for each page, which shows you which color to use for each part. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the plants before you get there!

CREDITS: The photo is by Bruno Giletti.

Enjoy the website,
Beth Chapple, Editor