Mollusks 13, fungi 75, birds 86, frogs 1: results from Yellowstone's first BioBlitz

Park visitors explore the BioBlitz discovery tentThe elk herd that frequents Mammoth Hot Springs remained conspicuously absent, perhaps sensing their star status had been supplanted—at least for the day—by Yellowstone’s smaller creatures.

Hundreds of Yellowstone visitors young and old gathered around the Yellowstone BioBlitz tent eagerly peering into microscopes at red water mites or watching a display of carnivorous aquatic beetles. Volunteer scientists from across the country, all of whom had just spent an exhausting day counting the flora and fauna in the Mammoth Hot Springs area, enthusiastically related stories of their discoveries. 

Mycologist Bob Antibar, who had traveled from Ohio for the event, proudly displayed a colorful array of mushrooms at his table and cheerfully fielded questions about the strange-looking fungi. He was pleased with the results of the BioBlitz: “We did pretty well for such a dry area of the park, counting almost a hundred species of fungi.” Cathy Cripps, from Montana State University, explained her important work in using beneficial fungi to foster the health of the whitebark pine tree, which is threatened in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

A Columbia spotted frog collected from the fieldIn contrast to the numbers of the fungi-enthusiasts, the herpetologists were disappointed in finding only Columbia spotted frogs and two snakes. Since only four species of amphibians and six species of reptiles live in the entire park, finding three species is still quite an accomplishment in itself. Visitors did not seem to be keeping score and delighted in viewing the live Columbia spotted frog and garter snake the herpetologists had gathered from the field.

At the insect table, a microscope revealed dozens of tiny creatures wiggling among leaf litter. Beetle expert Michael Ivie proudly showed people the tiny featherwing beetle, the smallest beetle in Yellowstone and one of the smallest in the world. The size of a pinhead, the beetle had to be viewed through a hand lens.

Dr. James Halfpenny with his animal track collectionDr. James Halfpenny, a scientist based in Yellowstone, had a full collection of mammal track casts on display and shared photographs of his group’s exciting find; while searching for pika, his team encountered a marten scurrying among the rocks. “We must have taken over 400 photos of the marten between us,” he said and laughed.

Overall, a total of 956 species had been identified by noon on Saturday. The scientists will continue to study their findings and publish the final results on the Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center website. The first Yellowstone BioBlitz not only provides an important biological inventory, but also helps scientists understand how to maintain the health of an ecological system. With climate change, pollution and other environmental ills threatening our public lands, studies like these will be crucial to the future of Yellowstone and other national parks.

Visit my Examiner page for a slideshow of the event.

A Drive Through Yellowstone

Today I had to conduct several environmental trainings around the park, so I drove most of what's referred to as the Grand Loop (except for the Beartooth Pass which is still closed). I welcome long drives in Yellowstone as there is always something interesting to see. Baby bison greeted me in the morning, and a few minutes later I watched a grizzly bear--his paw hurt from an encounter with a porcupine--foraging in a meadow.

As I drove into the park's interior, I also moved into winter. A blanket of snow still covers Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake's smooth, frozen surface shows not even a hint of blue water. I also made sure to catch an eruption of Old Faithful--it never fails to elicit a child-like delight in me even though I've seen it erupt dozens of times. Visit the live streaming webcam of Old Faithful to watch it remotely. I waved hello and said happy Mother's Day to my mom in Massachusetts on the webcam today.

I've posted a selection of photographs and videos below from my Yellowstone field trip.

Old Faithful on Mother's Day

Old Faithful Video

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear With Hurt Paw From Porcupine Encounter

Grizzly Bear Video

Frozen Yellowstone Lake

Two Baby Bison Crossing Road

Hayden Valley

Chipmunk Watching Old Faithful

Beaver Ponds Trail

wildflowers on beaver pond trail.jpg.jpg John Muir is a ubiquitous presence in Yosemite and I often joked about the world not needing another John Muir book when I worked there. Yet he remains one of my heroes and his voice has followed me to Yellowstone. When he visited the park in 1885, he described the landscape I traveled along today: “beaver meadows are outspread with charming effect along the banks of the streams, parklike expanses in the woods, and innumerable small gardens in rocky recesses of the mountains...while the whole wilderness is enlivened with happy animals.”

My footsteps carried me along a series of forests and grasslands in the Mammoth Hot Springs area that passed by several small beaver ponds. Although I was not lucky enough to see beavers, I did observe their handiwork of impressive dams.

larkspur.jpg.jpgThe wildflowers dared to blossom today, perhaps finally sensing the end of winter (I hope!) and I encountered larkspur, primrose, balsamroot, woodland star, and many other colorful flowers I could not name. I have to admit to using my friend Jack's Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada to help identify some species--his book is just easier to use and I never tire at looking at his beautiful illustrations.

duck and ducklings.jpg.jpgA mother duck and her ducklings paddled along the water on one pond. I also found some large wolf tracks, but saw no wolves. Two mule deer munched on grass in a small forested alcove, and clark's nutcrackers loudly alerted me to their whereabouts.

In one of those “it’s a small world encounters,” a family stopped me on the trail to alert me about a bear and her two cubs playing ahead; the family turned out to be Chip and Laurie Jenkins and their two boys, who I worked with in Yosemite. Last week at the new Canyon Visitor Center, I met a past employee of mine from Yosemite as I gazed at the wonderful new exhibits. In the national park community, it truly is a small world.

At the end of my hike, I stopped quickly as this incredibly long snake slithered across the trail. At first I though it was the biggest rattlesnake I had ever seen, but I later found out from my guidebook this is a common mistake. I had encountered pituophis catenifer sayi (common name bull snake), Yellowstone’s largest reptile, which can grow up to six feet.

Wildlife of Yellowstone's Northern Range

Wildlife%20Watchers%202.JPG.jpgWhat do mountain goats, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, bison and bison calves, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, sandhill cranes, red-tailed hawks, wolves and wolf pups, elk and mule deer all have in common? We observed all of these animals today in Yellowstone.

For my family’s visit to Yellowstone, I scheduled a custom wildlife tour of the northern part of the park through the wonderful non-profit the Yellowstone Association. Barbara and Ariana, our excellent and fun guides, greeted us at 6:00 am this morning with coffee and hot cocoa, and we boarded our own bus to head to Lamar Valley. Some highlights of our trip:

Redtailed%20Hawk.JPG%20copy.jpg6:15 am: Grizzly bear traffic jam just fifteen minutes into our trip as we passed over the bridge spanning the Yellowstone river. We observed from the relative safety of our bus as the bear rambled along the road.

6:45 am: It’s never too early for a dose of cuteness. A large herd of bison with about five drowsy baby calves rested in a meadow near Roosevelt.

6:50 am: At Floating Island Lake, our guide shows us a nesting sandhill crane, which on my own I might have taken for a small rock. After a short time the feathered mass stands and through our binoculars we are able to see her eggs. Just for affect a red-tailed hawk soars overhead.

Sandhill%20Crane%20on%20Nest%202.JPG.jpg7:15 am: We arrive in Lamar Valley and quickly find the yellow X-terra of Rick McIntyre, the wolf guru of Yellowstone. Where his SUV is parked is a sure sign of wolf activity. We settle at Slough Creek Campground and focus our spotting scopes on a den site of the Slough Creek pack. We are rewarded with an appearance of a female and a pup—the cuteness quotient of our morning suddenly increases exponentially

9:00 am-11:00 am: Barbara, our guide, spots a lone collared black wolf sitting by the river, which is later identified as female 526. Coyote%20Glance.JPG.jpgRick, via the radio wolf network, credits the Yellowstone Association with the sighting, which is akin to being thanked by Audubon for a spotting a bird. Suddenly 526 dashes down the bank of the river, meets up with five other wolves, and after chasing a pregnant cow elk in the river, they take her down. After the hunt, one wolf trots off with her unborn fetus—a grisly reminder of the indifference of Mother Nature. While we watch the wolves, a coyote trots among us searching for food.

1:00 pm: Barbara scouts the snow-covered ridges of Barronette Peak, searching for mountain goats and within a few minutes has found some scurrying on the perilous cliffs. On an opposite facing ridge, we find four bighorn sheep.

wolf and two coyotes 2.jpg.jpg1:30 pm: On our return drive through Lamar Valley, Ariana notices four red-tailed hawks soaring low over a meadow, and a herd of pronghorn dashing down from a ridge. We stop and spot a lone dark wolf and three coyotes giving chase to each other, a truly mesmerizing sight. Although the game could have deadly consequences, the two species appear at play, teasing each other with feints and charges. At one point they call a truce and rest, and one coyote gives a loud howl.
wolf coyote chase 2.jpg.jpgwolf and howling coyote.jpg.jpgwolf in lamar.jpg.jpg

A "Bully" Day

bignorn itchy.jpg.jpgI won’t be premature again in declaring the official arrival of spring in Yellowstone, but today’s weather definitely displayed characteristics of non-winter. I spent the day basking in the sunshine and viewing wildlife; to quote one of my favorite historical figures, Teddy Roosevelt, I had a “bully” day.

I hiked up to the top of a ridge along the Rescue Creek Trail and had a premium seat for wildlife watching. Herds of bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer all lingered in the basin, munching on the newly green grass. At times, hikers coming up the trail startled the animals and from my high perch I watched the ballet of these graceful creatures as they galloped across the basin. Seeing a pronghorn in a full run is simply breathtaking. Near my vantage point, a small uinta ground squirrel peered out of some sagebrush, probably having recently emerged from hibernation.

uinta ground squirrel.jpg.jpgSpeaking of hibernation, a much larger mammal has emerged from its winter slumbers as well—grizzly sightings in the park have been frequent. Although at first I was fearful about hiking alone in grizzly country, I’ve gotten accustomed to thinking of myself in the middle of the food chain. Not that I’m entirely comfortable, but at least I haven’t been forced to give up my cherished solitary wanderings (I realize the behavior is risky, but so is driving a car). We’ll see how I feel once I’ve had my first encounter with a 600 lbs bear. On a positive note, I’ve discovered that hiking in the vicinity of large predators has made me more observant—out of necessity—yet I see more of what nature has to offer with my heightened level of awareness.

So many good wildlife sightings today—here’s a collage.

big horn herd.jpg copy.jpgbig horn ram.jpg.jpgpronghorn and bighorn running.jpg.jpgpronghorn running.jpg.jpgbighorn gathering.jpg.jpg

The Bluebirds Are Coming! The Bluebirds Are Coming!

On my run up the Old Road in Gardiner today, vibrant blue color suddenly emerged against the gloomy grey sky. Dozens of mountain bluebirds danced in the air; a stunning sight as I have never seen more than a single bluebird in one place. Their appearance reminded me that spring will someday arrive despite the current snowy weather. Some of the beautiful birds landed and I halted my run to watch them. When they resumed their flight, the bluebirds glistened amidst the winter landscape like pieces of a lost summer sky.

Grazing%20Deer.jpgMountain bluebirds spend their winters from Oregon to Colorado southward, and can journey as far as central Alaska in the summer months. Mountain bluebirds feast on insects and have longer wings than similar species, making it easier for them to hover in the search for food since their mountain meadow habitat does not provide an abundance of perches.

No bluebird photos unfortunately--I didn't take my camera on my run--but here's a photo of mule deer grazing in my front yard this afternoon.

Skiing on the Blacktail Plateau Trail

some mountain.jpgYellowstone is truly a cross country skier's paradise. I glided on soft powder from last night's snowstorm while relishing the expansive views of the surrounding basin. I have no idea what peak is pictured at left--my guess from the topo map is Bunsen or Sepulcher.

The clouds rising over the white hills looked like the snow trying to escape into the sky. The rolling terrain appeared endless--the scale of the Yellowstone area is somewhat daunting as Yellowstone is almost three times the size as Yosemite.

fawn.jpgDuring my ski, I waved as I passed several napping bison, and stopped to examine some coyote tracks. The sunshine and blue skies were welcome after the constant snowstorms we've been experiencing. I am also happy to report that after this trip I have officially adjusted to the cold. Even at 18F today, I skied in only my base layer with long underwear, and no hat--and I was hot!

When I arrived home, three mule deer greeted me in my driveway. Apparently the Ungulate Festival has not finished yet.

And here's the sunset over Electric Peak from my front porch tonight.

An Assortment of Ungulates

Day two of wandering through the peaceable kingdom. My front yard seems to be the new cool hangout for ungulates. Perhaps they heard about all those donations I made to animal rights groups?

Resting elk near the Yellowstone river
resting elk.jpg copy.jpg

One looks at me curiously
curious elk.jpg copy.jpg

Nearby a herd of mule deer nap in the sun
napping deer.jpg copy.jpg

deer scratching.jpg copy.jpg

The dainty pronghorn also showed up for the ungulate gathering
pronghorn gang.jpg copy.jpg pronghorn.jpg.jpg

And an ungulate trifecta: elk, bison, and pronghorn all in one photo!
triple.jpg copy.jpg

All Creatures Great & Small

Imagine opening your front door to a herd of bison or walking to the post office being followed by a few young elk. I keep marveling over the assortment of creatures wandering around Yellowstone. Below is a photo diary of my animal encounters just today.

I open my front door and I see........
view from my front door.jpg.jpg

...elk and bison grazing on the grass newly revealed by the melting snow.
elk and bison.jpg.jpg

A bison strolls to my house, probably looking for my chocolate stash.
bison buddy.jpg.jpg

On my way to the Mammoth Hot Springs Post office, I pass an elk inspecting the cars,
elk in parking lot.jpg.jpg

while his buddy maneuvers through the snow,
elk in snow.jpg.jpg

and others graze nearby,
elk grazing in mammoth.jpg.jpg

some with a cottontail companion!
cottontail and elk.jpg copy.jpg

My Backyard Wildlife Safari

Mule%20Deer.jpgMany people remarked about the absence of wolf photos after I returned from the wolf study course in Yellowstone. I had some fabulous photographs of wolf scat, but no actual canis lupus. As my photographic skill is limited and my small point and shoot has a paltry zoom, capturing wildlife through the lens has been difficult, unless I wanted to risk being eaten or trampled. In Yosemite this wasn’t much of an issue (how many photos does one need of a steller’s jay?), but in this park representatives of what my BFF calls ‘charismatic mega-fauna’ walk by my front door daily.

I’m happy to report that I’ve rectified the problem and bison will no longer appear as indistinct dots in my photos. I spent an hour in a local camera store in Bozeman this weekend and the wonderful clerk helped me get outfitted. I still remain ignorant of terms like f-stop and aperture, but it doesn’t matter—all I really need to do is press a button and presto, a photo appears.

Proghorn%20Grazing.jpgFor my first photo safari, I ventured about 100 yards from my door and observed mule deer and pronghorn antelope. I love this graceful ungulate-- a dainty yet fast creature that looks like it belongs on an African savannah. Pronghorns are the fastest land mammal in North America and can reach speeds of up to 60 miles an hour. I happen to live in one of the best places in the park to view pronghorn; Yellowstone has a population of about 300-400 animals.

Sadly the pronghorn, which also has holds the record for the longest land migration route in the continental US, is in danger of disappearing in Yellowstone because of human development that has disturbed their annual 400 mile trek. Efforts are underway to preserve the migration corridors and protect the park’s herd.