18 May 2013

A Night on the Prairie (Big Hole River, southwest Montana)

Spring comes, hills green up, elk return to calving grounds, and trout feed: it's time for a night out on the prairie of the Big Hole River valley. The view from my campsite is striking:

At sunset, the sky gets even better--going from orange to pink in about 10 minutes:

The nights are still frosty--good weather for a wool jacket and a blazing fire:

Historically, the Nee-Me-Poo (Nez Perce) called the upper Big Hole Valley Iskumtselakik, "the place of ground squirrels." It's an apt name. I'm not sure which species of ground squirrel -- Columbian, Uinta, Wyoming, or Richardon's -- is most common. The Big Hole is at the intersection of all their ranges. To complicate matters, some of these species interbreed, they can all share the same burrow system and their larger cousins, Yellow-bellied Marmots, also live here. So far as I can tell, the several species sort out by proximity to the creek and rockiness of the ground. All of the species are wary and, when alarmed, sit up straight and give a shrill whistle. It drives MollyTheDog absolutely crazy. She will hold rock solid at the sight of elk cows and calves or even flushing grouse. But a colony of ground squirrels? Forget it--she takes off like a rocket.

While MollyTheDog chases ground squirrels, I examine the excavated dirt around their burrows. It's a good place to find jasper tool flakes left by Indians long ago:

This landmark, a lava outcrop, stands high above the floodplain (behind the outcrop from this view):

According to local legend, this site was the apex for game drives. Rock piles or brush formed a sort of corral. This story seems confirmed by what appear to be butchering tools such as this:

I took a morning hike and did a little fishing, initially thinking I would kill a few brook trout for lunch. Instead, I released each of the half-dozen or so that I caught. I tried to get a photo of one being released, but they are two quick and I was left literally empty-handed (it's a photo of the one that got away!):

Along the creek, I found various other treasures, such as this piece of Western Pearlshell Mussel:

On a boggy meadow, I found this small projectile point (aka "arrowhead"). It's a mystery to me why the First People made it from coarse, quartz-like material rather than from the abundant fine-grained jasper found here. Perhaps it was a practice point, or had been leached by the tannins in the bog?

These bits of glassy petrified wood caught my eye:

I investigated upslope from the fossilized wood and found some larger chunks (note the one with the dark, glassy core):

 Perhaps someday this skull (from a skunk?), will also become a fossil:

As a child, after I first heard the expression "pushing up daisies" I imagined corpses beneath every flower. There is some truth to this, of course, as all the things that die (human animals included) help fertilize the soil. A macabre thought, given the wealth of blooms on the prairie right now. Spring Beauty (Claytonia lanceolata) carpets the partially shaded borders near lodgepole pines:

The Spring Beauty's leaves and corm (root) are a tasty source of vitamin C (the roots are marble-to-golf ball in size). I chew the leaves while hiking:

Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) likes the same edge habitat, especially where winter snow drifts have lingered: 

On the drier, open areas several flower species brighten the landscape, including:
Pasque Flower (Anemone patens), a real giant among the mostly-tiny wildflowers:

False Danelion (Nothocalais spp.):

Larkspur (Delphinium spp.):

Locoweed (Oxytropis spp.):

Longleaf Phlox (Phlox longifolia):

In wetter areas, Pretty Shootingstar ("roosterheads," Dodecatheon pulchellum) take over:

 The purple ones dominate the scene:

But there are lots of white ones too:

In the same area, but not so common, are Sagebrush Bluebells (Mertensia oblongifolia):

Down along the creek (where I found the "arrowhead"), Sand Violet (Viola adunca) rounded out the picture:

Even the sun seemed to channel its inner flower spirit (helped along by high-altitude atmospheric ice crystals) by putting on this colorful halo (a "22 degree halo," to be precise)--time to pack up camp, this means rain is coming: 

Several pronghorn antelope amused me while I packed up camp:

On the way out, two moose said "Good bye:"

One of them has had a rough winter/spring, suffering a lot of hair loss probably due to "winter ticks" (dry spring weather favors winter tick outbreaks):

Once home, I checked myself and MollyTheDog for ticks--Mrs Rover doesn't appreciate us bringing these creepy guests into the house.

My little college held its graduation ceremony today--see you in the hills!


Arija said...

It is funny how green with envy I can get when you post one of your nature posts. My whole being screams "I wanna be there!" Gosh, meadows of wildflowers and Indian artefacts, groundhogs, deer and moose and cooking on a camp fire with the sweet smell of smoke in the air . . . all things in the long ago for me. I must have been a hermit in 'them thar hills' in another life the way I long for solitary places.
That skunk skull reminds me of not just 'alas poor Yorick' but also a perfect wambat skull my husband found after the '39 bush fire that then totally perished in our house in the '83 fire. The wombat's teeth keep growing as he wears them away and you could pullout 4" teeth from the jaw.

Love all your photos and that this time you released the trout.
Thank you for taking me along in imagination.

Janie said...

I always enjoy all of your knowledgable observations about your ecosystem and historyo. When we see ground squirrel holes, I'm ususally just worried about keeping my horse from stepping in them. Next time, I'm going to stop and look for jasper tool flakes.
Great photos of the flowers.

ZielonaMila said...

Fantastic photographs, I love to admire such views:) Greetings

Secret Agent Woman said...

I love the colors of the sky at sunrise and sunset. Cool skull - I didn't really skunks had such big canines.

Judy said...

I always enjoy your posts, especially this time of year when I get to see all your wildflowers!!! (Especially this year when I cannot see my own - darn sciatica!!!)

troutbirder said...

Lovely collection of scenes and wildflowers. Never saw a glacier lily before. Wow. Our pasque flowers missed Easter this year...:)

Merri said...

lovely spring finds!!
- The Equestrian Vagabond