24 September 2012

"Coming Home to China:" slideshow, lecture

Hope some of you local readers can attend. This is the first in a three part series. - Pat aka EcoRover

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:

03 September 2012

Summer's End

Another summer has come and gone. Yes, I know: technically it's summer until the autumnal equinox later this month. As an academic, though, my summer ends with the beginning of classes. Also, in Montana, we are not surprised by snow anytime from Labor Day on.

I did not return home from China until early July, so I did my best to fit in a few good backpacking treks. The last one was to my favorite spot in the Pintler Wilderness: Lost Lakes/West Goat Peak.  I like West Goat in part because I can see it from my home and college campus, and even on the worst of days can take a brief mental vacation as I remember my time in that special place.

Along the little mountain streams and in boggy places, there were more blooming gentians (Mountain Bog Gentian, Gentiana calycosa) than I have ever seen:

The Oregon Grape (Berberis repens) leaves are turning scarlet and the berries are ripening: 

As the highest peak in the Pintler, West Goat (part of Saddle Mountain) has interesting geology. My geologist friend Dick Gibson (http://www.gravmag.com/ ) tells me this quartz in bedrock is a good example of "left lateral shear" [after discussion with Dick and Mike Stickney at the brewpub, they agreed that this is actually "RIGHT lateral shear"--marked by lazy-Z-shapes as opposed to lazy-S'es]:

I have found signs of old mining exploration in the area, but apparently nothing of economic value was found. Some of the pyrites are pretty, nonetheless:

I camp at the foot of Saddle Mountain. Note my layers of clothes--it was in the 30s deg F each morning:

Despite the apparent barrenness, a fine spring of ice-cold water gurgles from the scree:

Camp is near treeline, but there are a few large lightning scarred veterans such as this old lodgepole pine:

Nearby, a fallen Alpine larch is slowly melting back into the soil:

I love the treeless Alpine area above camp, from Lower Lost Lake (with West Goat Peak in the upper right):

To Upper Lost Lake:

The upper lake has the only glacier in the Pintler (in this photo, the glacier is the snowfield on the lake's edge):

The usually stunning view from the top of West Goat (looking down to Lower Lost Lake) was obscured by smoke from the many fires burning throughout the area: 

MollyTheDog and I also made the mile-or-so jaunt along the Saddle Mountain Ridge to East Goat, with a view back along the ridgeline to West Goat:

We also found several old survey pins like this:

For some reasons, ravens always seem to congregate on West Goat. On this day, a dozen or so were  playing on the snowfield: 

 Oh yes, there are mountain goats--here a nanny and kid (photo taken through my binoculars): 

There are always black bears about, and the occasional grizzly wanders through as well. Abundant flipped-over rocks testified to recent bear activity:

I carry "bear spray" (cayenne pepper oil) while hiking, and as a precaution always hang my food while hiking and at night. The rule is 10 feet high, 5 feet below the branch it hangs from, and 5 feet from the trunk:

Each morning, the sun glowed red in the dawn sky:

Helicopters, spotter planes, and water bombers often passed over--fire season can be a noisy time in the wilderness. One of the helicopters was dangling a line, probably for a water bucket:

Leaving the mountains and hiking the last few miles along a low elevation creek, the air warmed to the 80s deg F and already I longed for the high mountain air cooled by snowfields:

PS: I used to be secretive about the grandeur of Saddle Mountain/Lost Lakes. Unfortunately, a "kiss-and-tell" guide to the Pintler was published recently, so the secret is out.

Family Outings 
Daughter Emily was home for a week or so, and we had some good time together. The week began with a family and friends car camp-out at our favorite place, Dr. Anaconda Lake: 

I arrived a day early to secure a few sites, hike through the 2000 Burn along a favorite ridge with towering rocks:

Along this ridge, Grouse Whortleberries (Vaccinium scoparium) are especially abundant this year:

It's been 12 years since the great forest fire, and the lodgepole pine are beginning to out-compete and shade the annuals, such as Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium):

I also cut some wood for our few long evenings around the fire:

Soon the gang arrived, including a new faculty colleague Yan Qi--shown here taking a turn on the mall, splitting wood: 

We enjoyed a warm afternoon on the beach and playing in the water:

And the beautiful scene of sunset at the lake:

On our last day, a small group of us hiked cross country (about 5 miles each way) to a secluded stream with a rare population of Western Pearlshell Mussels (Margaritifera falcata). Here is an old shell (we didn't want to disturb the living ones): 

It was tough-going, as many of the burned trees have fallen into a pick-up sticks mess of deadfall:

Even our healthy young Emily might have been a little tired after we arrived back in camp late that afternoon, though you'd never know it by this view of her hiking across a park:

A few days after the camp-out, Emily and I took a morning hike on Red Mountain, a prominent peak just south of Butte:

We walked up on a flock of blue grouse dusting themselves on the path leading to the peak:

And found some red wildflowers (which I have not been able to identify) near the peak: 

For Emily's 23rd birthday, we visited the frontier heritage town of Virginia City for a historic stroll and a show at the Brewery Follies:

And had supper at southwest Montana's finest restaurant, the Old Hotel in nearby Twin Bridges: 

Bow Hunting for Elk
Thankfully I was able to practice archery while in China, so it was not too large a transition back to my longbow. After spending many hours last year locating a prairie spring used by elk, I built a little ground blind using sagebrush:

I also invested in a trail camera this year and it paid off with some amazing photos:

Being elk, there is no pattern to their visits. Though they most frequently come between 6 and 9 p.m., many visits are in the wee hours of the morning:

Some at dawn:

Though most in the evening:

Never do they come at the same time more than about every third day. I camped and hunted there opening day. After no elk came in the morning, I took a hike, napped, and returned for the evening. About 7:30 p.m. a large flock (14+) of noisy magpies showed up. They flew away up the valley, returned, and then settled in a hundred yards or so across the little valley. Here are two right at the edge of my blind:

The magpies forewarned me about a herd of elk coming down the valley. The herd consisted of a large bull:

His harem of cows:

And a small bachelor herd of young bulls:

Unfortunately, the lead cow came within about 30 yards (arrow range) but knew something was not quite right. She went through an amazing series of complex vocalizations, clearly warning the others to stay clear of the spring. They listened to her, skirted my blind by 100 yards or so, and (I presume) traveled another mile or two to drink from a creek. 

Well, hunting is about more than killing. Happy Trails!