Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mother Nature's Magic

Umpqua National Forest, Oregon: July 24, 2011
Typical summer weather has finally hit …. Warm. Western Oregon usually has warm, dry summers with a little bit of miserably hot. Some would say summer has been a long time coming, but frankly I enjoyed the cooler and wetter spring. Today were on the fence as to whether we should head to the coast and cool off, or up into the Cascades and donate our pint of blood to the mosquitoes. Heading into the mountains won out. This weather is just what dragonflies love.

We ate lunch with the mosquitoes in the shade near a little pond. I had great plans of skirting this pond and hiking in to the next while Dale worked the nearby edge of this one. I walked down into the sunshine and started along the edge of the water – much higher than last year and hardly any emergent vegetation breaking the water’s surface yet.

What’s this? I’d only walked about forty feet along the shoreline when I spot a dragonfly nymph walking on land. Most dragonfly eggs hatch in water, then develop as aquatic nymphs until they are ready to emerge as adults. This nymph is still damp and heading towards the water. As I look about I realize it probably has been looking for some sort of a stalk to climb up on, but found none. The land near shore lacks suitable sites. Usually we find exuvia (the empty nymph casing left behind after a dragonfly emerges) on cattail, sedges, strong grasses, even rocks or wood – something sturdy enough so that they can crawl out of the water above ground. With the high water this pond isn’t offering many opportunities.

I call to Dale and then watch the little fella trudge back down the slope and into the water. The nymph soon finds some wispy grass growing in the shallow water, but as soon as he tries climbing up, the grass bends and plops him back into the pond. He needs a dry site to climb onto so he can let Mother Nature’s magic take over.

After watching the nymph make three unsuccessful attempts to climb out of the water, I decide to intervene. I pick up a nearby twig and settle it upright into the mud near him. In no time at all, the nymph is climbing up my little ladder out of the water. He must have thought my twig was mana from heaven!

What an opportunity! We’ve spotted dragonflies in various stages of emerging from their nymph form, but here is an opportunity to watch the whole process from start to finish. I run back to the car to get my ‘walk in the mud’ shoes on so I can wade out into the water and photograph from a slightly different angle than Dale. The cool water feels wonderful in the hot sun.
By the time I return the nymph is about an inch above the water’s surface and already his exoskeleton is breaking open along its back. Just a little of the dragonfly’s head and back is emerging.
Our photos show us more than we can see with our eyes as we watch. I’m fascinated to see that what was its ‘nymph eyes’, i.e. the little lumps on the outside of his head, are now just lumps on the outside of his new eyes. This adult dragonfly’s eyes will be bigger and fused together in the middle. Right now the eyes look lumpy; not the big, smooth globes they will become. The nymph's head is bend upside down so his greenish eyes are now beneath the head of the exuvia.
It’s a rather slow process. He struggles and rests and struggles some more. Finally head and thorax pop free of the exuvia. Its wings look more like warts than the beautiful panels they will become. Its body is still stumpy like the nymph it wiggled out of.
It’s a boy! Gradually the dragonfly’s body and wings have been lengthening. His appendages on the end of his abdomen tell us it is a male, but we still don’t know what species. When a dragonfly first emerges it has very little coloration. As we watch some yellows have been developing on his thorax and his eyes have been taking on a rich reddish brown color.

We’ve been watching for an hour and eighteen minutes. For awhile I was amazed at quickly changes happened. Now that he looks like a dragonfly, the process is a little slower. I dare to get out my sketchbook and draw while Dale continues to photograph. Gradually his wings lengthen, his abdomen becomes a slender tube and yellows become richer.
Pop! One moment he hung with wings still folded back and then, as if a spring had released them, he spread his wings into the fixed wing position. He folds them back briefly, but then back to spread wings. I suspect he’ll hold them there for the rest of his life. Dragonflies are easily told apart from damselflies by the position of their wings.

As his colors deepen we can finally tell he is a Crimson-ringed Whiteface ( Leucorrhinia glacialis ), a fairly small dragonfly found at higher elevations in the West and parts of Canada. Right now he is yellow and brown, but when fully mature his yellow parts will be fire engine red and the rest of his body will be jet black. While we’ve been watching this one several others have landed near us.

A gust of wind blows our dragonfly off the stick and he lands on the ground near me. Even in his yellow and brown stage, he is beautiful. His wings look like lace made in a fairy glass-works. His eyes are huge …. Better to see you with! Another puff of breeze and off he flies. We’ve been watching for just over two hours. Hard to believe he transformed from a stubby brown nymph into a slender flying machine in such a short time.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Peg Leg Lives!

Yellowstone National Park: April 19, 2011
Once again winter storm warnings. Late morning it looked a little better so we headed out. Just a skiff of snow in Gardiner, but more higher up. Still around freezing in Gardiner and breezy. It’ll be colder higher up.

There are five sandhill cranes at Blacktail Ponds when we pull into the pullout for lunch. One walks across a frozen expanse of ice and four in the sage on the far side. Three fly off. We chew on our veggies and ham sandwiches. It is cozy in the car, away from the few errant snowflakes which whiz down through the grey sky.

Two cranes fly in, bugling as they spread their long wings and float down and join the two others. The four group together on the rise of a low ridge on the far side of the pond. We’re snuggled in the warm car when I see that two cranes are bugling. Dale kills the radio and rolls down the window. The bugles resonate throughout the valley. For me crane voices are a song of wilderness and far away places. When I hear them I always pause to savor the moment.
The four cranes are all near each other, walking on the ridge line of a slight sage covered rise on the far side of the pond. Snow beyond silhouettes their graceful postures.

One is Peg Leg! We never saw her last year, but here she is, fifteen years after we first saw her. I first commented on the female crane with the missing foot in my journal on May 11, 1997. Her right foot is missing, but not her right leg. Her gait is very distinctive. She touches the ground with her peg leg and takes short steps with it. She always brings that leg up much higher than the other when she steps with her good leg. It is quite a limp, but she seems to manage well in spite of it.

Peg Leg used to nest in the bulrushes beneath this pullout. All went well until one morning we drove past and noticed a golden eagle was standing on the nest site and eating her mate! The next year she had a new mate.

Peg Leg and her new mate nested on the far side of Blacktail Ponds, far enough away that we had to scope carefully to verify it was Peg Leg over there. All seemed to go well for a few years and then our sightings became spotty. 2009 she flew over the ponds alone and calling, calling as if to locate a missing mate. We didn’t see her in 2010. We assumed we’d seen the last of her.

Today’s cranes interrupt my thoughts. Two are bugling. Their ‘unison bugle’ tells us we are watching a mated pair. He points his bill to the sky and bugles forth with a slower deep call that fills this open valley. Her bugle is higher, more rapid and she doesn’t point so high with her bill. We look carefully. It’s not Peg Leg.

Dare I hope that Peg Leg has a mate? We watch the foursome continue along the ridgeline. The two cranes on the right pause and stretch their necks to the sky. Once again the larger crane bugles straight up, the smaller joins in with her rapid rattle. This time the female has only one foot. My heart sings with Peg Leg and her mate.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Coke Ovens

Yellowstone National Park: April 17, 2011
Once again the weather reports were for winter storm warnings. We slept in and stayed in until almost noon. Some spits of snow. Decided to play it safe and stay at a low elevation. A gravel road heads west from Gardiner, following the Yellowstone River. The first several miles are part of the park. Dale hates washboard roads, but driven slowly enough, they smooth out.
We putz along hoping for a mountain bluebird. We soon realized they are out here but perches are few and far between unless you like buffalo patties – they do.

We eat our sandwiches just beyond the western edge of the park at a U. S. Forest Service trailhead. Still spits of snow. Five mule deer come along, nibbling on bits of grass. I also picked grass, for Lucy (Lucy the goose – see blog post for April/ “We’ve Arrived.” ) Dale has become quite the worrier over Lucy’s care. Deer hop right in her pen and gobble up her grain as soon as she is fed. She seems to love green grass as much as her grain. Unfortunately I learned the painful way how tough a goose’s bill is. She likes to cut bites of grass when I hold it for her. My finger got in the way and I’m still sore three days later.

After lunch we park near a small log shed just outside the park. I get to paint a cabin while Dale walks.
Farther west we drive past old coke ovens. A very different historical era lies half hidden by tall sage. I wish I knew more about how they worked. There are a lot of openings and a lot of short chimneys. Some have had rock harvested from their openings and I can see the interiors are quite large. I decided to draw a couple that are still in good shape – there are actually way more ovens in the row.

Note: The internet is wonderful! After I got home I found a complete edition of “The Official Northern Pacific Railroad Guide,” 1893, published online. These ovens are part of the 36 coke ovens built at Horr, Montana. At that time the town had 300 people and was the end of the line for people traveling to Yellowstone. From there they took a stage to the Mammoth Hotel. Now I just see the old ovens, pastures and sage, and a scattered modern house or two. Perhaps the little shed I painted is the last remaining building from the town of Horr.

I dug deeper to find out about coke ovens. Coal was mined nearby and brought to the ovens. According to Wikipedia: baking coal in an airless furnace drives out volatile parts of coal, leaving behind coke. Coke is used in smelting iron ore and as fuel in stoves and furnaces where a cleaner burning fuel is needed. The coal from this area was as high a quality as that found in Pennsylvania.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


In case it hasn’t dawned on you yet that our springtime trip to Yellowstone National Park starts out as a winter trip, here are my notes from April 17, 2011:
Gloomy. Electric Peak had its head buried in the clouds when we got up. Above freezing in town. Peeks of blue sky by the time we start out.

Lots of snow melted yesterday. Our ermine spot isn’t looking so pristine.

Snow lies deep in the Lamar Valley – a vast blanket of whiteness covers the valley floor. No tracks out there. North facing slopes are well covered too, but there are many barren areas on the south facing, wind swept slopes. We saw about 30 bison on the south facing slopes of the Lamar and maybe a dozen elk – that’s all in a valley that is about 15 miles long.

This Unita ground squirrel was sitting on a roadside snow bank in the Lamar. He is so thin! He is just beginning to dig a hole in the snow, I think so he’d have a place to hide right near some tiny peeks of green grass which are just beginning to show along the edge of the road. The asphalt gathers warmth and triggers the first grass.

I always feel a little sorry for Unita ground squirrels at this time of year. I think their internal clocks are out of sync. They disappear into hibernation in August, long before winter snow arrives. Now they are popping their heads out, looking about, and finding all too little to eat.
We continue east beyond the Lamar Valley. As we near Cooke City we are subjected to Yellowstone’s version of tunnel vision … can’t see over the piles of snow along the side of the highway. The little town has huge piles of snow and many roofs carrying what looks to be two feet of snow.
On the way back we stop to admire the snow covered crags above us.
It is hard to even imagine how so much snow can stick together and form the huge cornices. Their size comes into focus when I compare them to the trees growing lower on the slope. Tons and tons of snow are up there, waiting break off and come sliding down. I see a tiny spot on top of one of the cornices and realize it is something out of place. With my binocular it just looks like a speck of pepper, but with my spotting scope I can just barely make out the shape of an eagle. What a fabulous view he must have.

Its blustery and cold. Snow blows off the tops of the peaks and makes will-o-the-wisps hundreds of feet tall. At this elevation winter hasn’t loosened its grip.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Bison on the Move

All too often we find ourselves traveling on ‘bison time,’ which isn’t very fast. They just plod along, taking their dear sweet time. The slope is steep here. They can’t get off the road going up or by going down. We’ll just let them mosey along. One morning we waited 45 minutes while a large herd headed towards us on the Yellowstone Bridge, a fairly long bridge over a deep ravine. That evening they changed their minds, and quietly plodded across the bridge in the other direction – another 45 minutes! This wait won’t be as long. We know this road by heart. A flatter area is coming up where they can step aside.
Our first bison cow with a new calf! That’s early. It’s a nice big cow, a yearling and the new calf. All look in good shape. Mama is on a mission. The cow and calf travel 1.4 miles in 45 minutes, and still truckn’. When bison want to move, they can cover a lot of ground. We wonder if Mama and calf are just heading west, the route to a lower elevation, or are they hurrying to catch up with their herd.
Bison cows often end up separated from their herd when they give birth. I have a wonderful memory of watching a lone cow way down the Lamar Valley. Heat waves blurred her shape and made her legs seem to dance. Then I realized there were too many legs. A new calf was running at her side. We watched the cow and calf travel down the south facing slope of the Lamar Valley, across the valley, and then into the river. She seemed to know just where to cross. A lot of the river is bordered by a steep cutbank, but the cow chose a place when the little tyke could scramble out onto the far shore. They had already traveled over a mile, but they still had to follow the far side of the valley for another half a mile. Finally she reached a group of about twenty cows. Hers was the first calf. A baby at a baby shower couldn’t have created a better fuss. Tails up the cows gathered about and greeted the newest member. The calf’s chances for survival just increased significantly. Unlike elk, bison gather together to protect each other when danger arrives. Elk protect their own calves, but leave others to fend for themselves.

Today’s Mama is hurrying on. Most of their route is windswept but where there is snow she is able to walk on crusted snow. Maybe that is why she is hurrying. Later in the day this snow will be too soft to walk on. The calf has no problem