29 April 2010

Skywatch Friday: Virga

With the warmer (i.e. above freezing!) temperatures of spring comes that most delightful aerial phenomenon, virga. Sometimes called "dry rain," virga is precipiation that falls from clouds but dries up before touching Earth. It creates lovely veils of smoke and is especially beautiful when backlit by the setting sun. Here are a few pics looking westward down the Clark Fork River Valley from my home in Walkerville, Montana (near Butte America):

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First Bear of Spring

In roving around my corner of the good Earth in southwest Montana near Butte, I usually run into several of the Black Bear people (Ursus americanus) each year. We had a lot of bears where I grew up in northwest Pennsylvania, too, and I came to admire and respect them. After about the age of 14, I no longer could hunt and shoot them. They have large territories, move miles to take advantage of seasonal foods, and usually do their best to avoid human conflict. Sows are good mothers, too, and will protect cubs by charging or even attacking if necessary (see my experience with a bear charge here).

The first bear of spring is exciting--like the first wildflower, only big and furry and intelligent. I guess it's not like the first flower at all. Anyway, MollyTheDog and I were hiking  along a rocky ridge. We scrambled around some sofa-sized boulders to find ourselves eye-to-eye with 200-pound plus Bear--about 100 feet away. Bear moved startlingly quick, doing an about-face and bounding behind the rocks out-of-sight. MTD thought "PLAY TIME!" and took chase the way she does with other dogs. Bear shinnied  up a tree, I called Molly back, and we circled down and around--with me speaking loud apologies to Bear for having such a rude and unmannerly dog. Here's worried Bear up the tree:

Cutting down the ridge on a loop back to the truck, we found ourselves in knee deep snow on an east-facing slope. MTD quickly took advantage of this with otter-style sliding:

When we  got to the bottom of the little valley, I was surprised to find the lake (elevation c. 7,000 feet) still solidly frozen over:

Back home in Walkerville above the Silver Bow valley, just a few miles away, our first wildflowers are blooming. They are not like bears at all, in that they stay still and allow themselves to be photographed close-up. As usual, our first blooms include Biscuitroot (Lomatium cous; it was an important food of indigenous peoples):

And the tiny, elegant Cutleaf Daisy (Erigeron compositus):

If you look closely, the lobed finger-like leaves of E.compositus are especially beautiful:

At a folk music event that evening, I told the bear story. A friend (and bear hunter) wanted to know just where I had seen Bear. The answer came easily: No Tellum Creek.

23 April 2010

Skywatch Friday: Raven Drops Its Pack

I was on my way home to Walkerville (elevation 6309') from the little college where I teach (elevation 5500'). It's a good hoof up the hill, with an 800 foot elevation gain in the 1&1/2 miles distance. Always a good excuse to pause for a photo of the 170-foot tall steeple of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church (a Gothic Revival structure from 1938):

And a photo of smoke rising from a National Forest Service "slash" burn in the Highland Mountains to the south:

And the silhouettes of trees near the old and now-empty Westside Reservoir:

Ravens (Corvus corax) are a common bird on the landscape of Butte, Montana. Other Montana cities have crows or magpies, but Butte has ravens. In twenty years of walking up and down the hill, I've gotten to know them pretty well. One flew over and gave a friendly "quork:"

To which I politely replied, of course. In Ravens in Winter, ethologist Bernd Heinrich quotes an Athapaskan woman: "One of the things we say to raven while we hunt is 'tseek’aal, sits’a nohaaltee’ogh,' which means ‘Grandpa, drop a pack to me.’ If the bird caws and rolls it is a sign of good luck."  Following my greeting, Raven rolled over in flight (note the photo is not upside down):

It was a good day.

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20 April 2010

Happy Earth Day from Butte, Montana

This post is dedicated to Gaia, our Earth. Every day is Earth Day. Here's a glimpse of my corner of Earth in southwest Montana, month-by-month, as seen through the eyes of a year-round outdoorsmen. [Caution: October and November are illustrated with photographs of dead animals.]

Moose at Butte's Moulton Cross Country Skiing area settle into the willow bottoms:

Back country skiing opens up, like the ungroomed pole line run at The Moulton:

The full moon calls us out for a night ski (friends Don & Andrea Stierle on Big Flat overlooking Butte):

Ice goes off the creeks of the upper Big Hole River, and the water offers up a mess of Brook Trout for a Spring Feast:

Elk return to their calving range near Anaconda, Montana:

Salmon flies hatch on Montana's Big Hole River, making for outstandint fishing with large dry flies:
Peakbagging in the Pintler Wilderness near Butte, Montana:

Annual campout with family & friends at Dr Anaconda Lake (the area burned off in a big forest fire in 2000):

Watching wolves in nearby Yellowstone National Park:

Hunting season begins, and the hills of the Lower Big Hole River offer up a pronghorn antelope:

Hunting season continues with white-tailed deer, mule deer, and (shown here) elk. The freezer is full. Thank you, Earth:

Temperatures drop, more snow comes, and it's time to begin skiing again:

Spring's First Wildflowers

There's nothing blooming at 6,000 feet elevation around the little city of Butte, Montana. But Mrs Rover & I found the first wildflowers of spring while hiking with friends along the Big Hole River.

Hoods Phlox or Cushion Phlox (Phlox hoodi) is a common yet welcome harbinger of spring:

Like many early blooms, they are tiny:

These flowers were not quite open--could be either a Blue Bell (Mertensia) or Penstemon species:

Another small Penstemon species was flowering:

Along with the tiniest of all, probably a Lomatium species:

By comparison, the Easter Daisies (Townsendia hookeri) are positively huge:

With flowers we also met the first insects of spring. When asked by a theologian what the study of biology had taught him about the Creator, atheist and geneticist J.B.S. Haldane allegedly replied, “I’m not sure, but He seems to be inordinately fond of beetles.” Haldane's reply alluded to beetle species being so numerous, including the Ladybugs:

Hmmm.... The Creator must also be inordinately fond of Mosquitoes:

The Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) is not blooming yet, but it's a common shrub along the Big Hole River and an important browse for mule deer and other ruminants. Here is a branch of the shrub in striking contrast to a lichen-covered rock:

Speaking of deer, no hike is complete without MollyTheDog finding a deer spine:

Or an elk leg:

She had no interest in this old deer skull, which has almost returned to soil. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust:

Like the deer and flowers, we all come and go.  Hopefully, the Earth goes on.

15 April 2010

Coppery Treasure: Skywatch Friday

It is true that in Montana, exactly as the song has it, seldom are the skies "cloudy all day." The change is abrupt, sometimes with storms clearing as quickly as they come:
Our spring weather pattern of snowstorm-followed-by-sunny-days has continued, but it's really spring now--even at 6,000 feet elevation along the spine of the North American continent. How do we know it's really spring? The snow -- like the six inches that came earlier this week -- is heavy and wet, very unlike our dry, powder snow of winter. On such days, it's hard to be at work for morning meetings and classes when the backcountry skiing is still so good.

But on sunny, warm days, it's also hard to be in my office instead of fishing on the river. Here's the view from a window down the hall--I don't think views like this make it any easier to be at work (view to Rampart Mountain/East Ridge of the Continental Divide overlooking Butte):
Mrs Rover and I appreciate the longer days. After supper, we walk MollyTheDog along the hill behind our home in Walkerville, taking in the coppery light (how appropriate for an old copper mining town!) of a sunset:

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Spring Hike

It's been the usual spring mix of weather this week in Butte America, with one notable exception: the snowstorms are now dumping heavy, wet snow instead of our usual dry powder. Here's a view from along I-90 (near the Virginia City exit) after Mike & I were blown off the river last week:

This week's storm dumped six inches of the stuff on us Tuesday night, and drat the luck I had meetings the next morning and could not get out for even a few hours of skiing before it melted off under the warm sun and clear sky of the next day. Did I mention being blown off the river? We were on the Jefferson and had just hooked up with one trout each when the storm hit. The white that you see in this photo is water lifted from the surface by one of many such wind gusts:

Mrs Rover and I chose a better day for a walk with Dave & Gloria around Warm Springs Ponds at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River, with a good view toward Deer Lodge and Mount Powell:

The resident bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) female was on her nest in a big old cottonwood. There was a heron rookery here until the eagles moved in and killed off the young in the nests some years ago. Bubba was presumably off looking to kill a fish or duck:

The pussy willows (Salix sp) are in their glory:

And waterfowl and songbirds (like this yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) are breeding & raising the next generation (lower right--click to enlarge):

For serious bird watchers, Warm Springs Ponds is a Mecca. For the rest of us, it's still a lovely place to enjoy a warm spring day along the Continental Divid of southwest Montana.

08 April 2010

Skywatch Friday: Mountains, Snow, Sun

Weather is unsettled (and unsettling) this time of year at 6,000 feet eleveation in the Northern Rocky Mountains of southwest Montana. We'll have a day or two of gorgeous, blue-bird days (and yes, I saw our first Mountain Blue Bird earlier this week!) as shown by this view from Butte, America, south to the Highland Mountains:

But then in the evening you see the clouds coming, 50 miles or more away, rolling up the Clark Fork River valley. Looks like a ski day tomorrow!

A fresh snowfall comes overnight (an inch in town, more in the mountains), just enough to keep the backcountry skiing tempting. Morning dawns. Given the view from the front porch, you're not quite sure whether to dress for blizzard or sun:

By late morning, though, the sky clears, the air warms, and the snow melts. The crystalline blue views to the mountains of the Pintler wilderness west of our little city are breathtaking:

To fish or ski? That is the question. You can do both (ski morning, fish afternoon), but it really interrupts the work schedule!