19 September 2012

Life at a Prairie Spring: A Montana Micro-habitat

We often go for the big picture. Drive through Yellowstone National Park, "Wow, look at all the buffalo!" Go to Glacier Park, "Gee, Mountain Goats!" In taking up bowhunting after a long hiatus, I've relearned the pleasures of a patient, intimate connection to one very small place. It's a spring on the dry, sagebrush prairie of the Big Hole River Valley, a 100-foot wide strip of willows and other riparian vegetation perhaps one-half mile long:

In sitting in a small hunting blind (made of sagebrush) through many sunrises and sunsets, I've gotten to know the place very well. Here is one view of my world:

Southwest Montana is not exactly the Sahara Desert, but it is a dry place. You can walk for many miles across the sagebrush steppe in some areas without finding water, but typically you can find a spring or creek every few miles. Even at this scale, water is a valued resource sought out by all creatures great and small. Megafauna such as pronghorn antelope have no trouble running a few miles to get a drink:

Similarly, mule deer range for miles across the sagebrush and mountain mahogany they favor for browse, and don't need to be too close to water. I see one or more groups most days, ranging from this doe (who seems to have just shed her winter coat):

To various does and fawns:

Large birds like magpies also range widely, though they nest at and visit the spring each day (I showed their portrait in my last blog post). For other creatures, a spring provides everything they need--it's their entire world. There are yellow warblers and some other small birds that, at least until winter migration time comes seldom venture 100 yards from the willows (February in Caracas, anyone?):

This pygmy rabbit lives under the rancher's stock watering tank (it's an "improved" spring). I doubt it ventures more than a hundred feet from the green grass, willows, and other vegetation around the spring:

The rabbit has a neighbor, this prairie rattlesnake (not one to pose for photos, is it?). Though Brer' Rabbit is too large for this small (only about 2 feet long) rattler to eat, I wonder if Rattler "ranches" Brer' Rabbit for those tasty babies that come in several litters from spring through summer?

Though the spring is a haven, it's not a safe one. The water attracts and sustains many critters that, in turn, attract and sustain predators like me, or like this kestrel:

Darkness brings no safety either, as this little owl takes over the graveyard shift, which might explain (along with Rattler) why mice are so rare around the spring: 

Most days I hunt only the sunrise or sunset hours. Occasionally, I hang out for the whole day. "What on earth do you do there all day," Mrs Rover wonders. I wander. Of course, given a 3 a.m. start from home, an afternoon nap is a must. Then there are hikes to nearby drainages a mile or so distant (I try to stay out of the bedding areas above "my" spring). Large old trees (here, a Douglas Fir) attract my attention:

I came across an owl roost, marked by the pellets of indigestible material the bird coughs up:

Each owl pellet, I think, contains the remains of one small creature. It's an opportunity for a bit of forensics--"CSI Montana," if you will:

Even a common Yellow Rabbibrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus), silhouetted against a blue sky in a sea of dried bunch grass, is worth a pause:

Years ago, someone found enough gold in the hardrock (i.e. not placer) to justify this small headrame (used to lift ore up the shaft) operation: 

And then there was the rancher who decided old car doors should be incorporated into a barbed wire fence. Not sure why this was a good idea, but it is a bit arty:

My trail camera continued to reveal lots of elk visiting the spring when I am not there. This one-antlered bull is one of many of his horny ilk (double pun intended) that visit: 

 During hunting season, I don't totally neglect my family and friends (or job). We've enjoyed two consecutive Saturday weddings, thanks to former graduate students. And one can't miss Friday afternoons at the local Quarry pub: 

We also take in live music at my university (my favorite local band, Mountain Moongrass, pictured here):

And at local festivals (pictured here, a group at the Boulder Music & Arts Festival):

Where young or old, everyone steps up for a dance:

Finally, we're enjoying awesome sunsets thanks to the many forest fires burning throughout the region:


Richard Gibson said...

I'm fundamentally a "big picture" person, but that does not detract from my deep, deep appreciation for the small, the local, the at-the-spring things that you so often portray. I love it, and I thank you.

Sylvia K said...

Delightful, beautiful captures from wonderful and beautiful Montana!! Thanks for sharing the fun and the beauty -- even if it does make me feel a bit "homesick" for my prior home! Hope your week is going well!

BLD in MT said...

Ha! CSI Montana--that is wonderful. Its been a long while since I spotted a pellet to investigate, but it sure is interesting.

The sunsets have been outstanding with all the smoke, and that photo you took actually managed to capture it quite well.

And thanks for the young and old dancing photo (wonderful!) and the heads up about Mountain Moongrass. I shall have to try and see them sometime.

Veronica Wald said...

Sounds fantastic - thirst is a powerful driver - what a great idea to wait by a spring to see what wildlife stops by for a drink.

ZielonaMila said...

Beautiful photographs, I like to admire such views. I am greeting

Janie said...

Nearly every free-flowing spring in Utah is "improved." I prefer unimproved, but they're hard to find. Interesting observations, and I like your Montana CSI.

John Bardsley said...

thumbs up!

bianca said...

Backpacking in Montana is always an adventurous option. It is always worth the ride. These photos say it all.