Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Broken Toe: Part II

Yellowstone National Park, USA

April 15
We arrive at Floating Island, full of anticipation.  Three Barrow’s goldeneyes are in the air circling the pond, 2 drakes and a hen.  Broken Toe flies in to the far slope and bugles a loud staccato series of rattles.  While she walks up the slope we spot three more cranes on the rise of the background knoll.  Unison bugling from two, but not from Broken Toe.  It looks to be the same four cranes that were here yesterday. 
Still and crisp this morning.  Only one other car at the pond -- Bob Landis.  We think he is video recording with sound so we are very quiet.  I still have a couple of things to get out of the car, but I wait until a car passes by and my noise won’t matter.  Of course my ball point pen immediately goes dry .... or got too cold.  Luckily I have my fountain pen with me.  It is filled with Noodler’s polar brown -- ink that doesn’t freeze. 
Soon being quiet doesn’t matter.  Another car has pulled in to the pullout and they are getting out their equipment.  
Life on the pond is peaceful one minute ..... and then -- interrupted!
Oh dear!  This is an all out brawl between two cranes.  One is Broken Toe.  She had flown to the right of the talus, bugled, then back to the grassy slope on the far side of the pond.  Another crane soon approached and a battle royal has started.  This is serious.  Wings flailing, breaks grabbing.  One has the other on its back!
The fight goes on and on.  It occurs to me Dale might like the tripod and big Bertha (our big telephoto lens).  While I grab the tripod for him he switches to big Bertha, resting it on the door while I get the tripod set up.  Still fighting! 

The intruder is chasing Broken Toe.  Her bent toe is visible in this photo.
Finally after 3 1/2 minutes, the cranes break free.   It seems like ages.  

The two take to the air and swing in front of us before going over to the marsh. 

I couldn’t see it at the time, but looking later at our photographs it is obvious both cranes bloodied their bills during the fight.  They often grabbed each other by the mouth -- maybe to control how much stabbing the other could do?  Broken Toe’s throat has a drip of blood on the underside and she has blood on the inside of one wing. 

The intruder.
Two cranes soon come back.  I’m not sure which two. Then we hear cranes bugling off in the distance -- probably the mated pair since they often unison bugle.  

For about half an hour after the fight we hear a little more bugling, coming from out-of-sight.  Quiet since then.  We’ve been able to verify that Broken Toe is here and probably the loner.  The loner has more rust color than Broken Toe, so we name him “Rusty.”  
Maybe, hopefully, the intruding pair have gotten the message and will leave Broken Toe alone.  So far she seems all right in spite of the fight.  
Broken Toe is alone on the slope when we hear churring -- the deep purring-like call we usually associate with courting, nest building, and egg laying.  Soon we see a second crane.  Broken Toe is walking down the slope, Rusty several yards behind her.  Broken Toe droops her wings! (typical posture for a female to assume before copulation).  She is ready to copulate ... but he doesn’t do anything ... he?  I really don’t know if Rusty is a male, but I assume she does.  Rusty just walks near her, then veers off.  Broken Toe folds her wings again and wanders up the slope.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Broken Toe: Part I

Yellowstone Stone National Park, USA

Introduction:  We’ve been aware of sandhill cranes nesting in this immediate area since 1998.  At first they nested in the marshy swale just to the east of Floating Island Lake, but that nest was abandoned when wolves killed an elk just a few feet from their nesting platform.  The cranes then moved to the far inlet of Floating Island Lake and nested there for four years, but drought kept dropping the water level and soon their bullrushes were too exposed to the land.  By then a tiny bit of emergent vegetation was appearing out in the middle of the lake.  The cranes harvested organic material from the bottom of the pond and soon had a nesting platform built where it can be easily observed from the road.  Several years of wonderful crane viewing followed.  
At first we didn’t know how to tell the male crane from the female except that the male is usually larger.  Then we found out the two can be separated when they preform the ‘unison bugle.’  In 2006 I noticed the female has a bent toe -- the inside toe on her left foot.  We named her “Broken Toe.”

April 13

Floating Island is so quiet.  Not a duck to be seen, nor a crane.  When we were here Yesterday we spotted Broken Toe feeding along the eastern slope a few feet from shoreline.  Every so often she paused and rattled a rather low, plaintive call -- several times.  Only an echo responded.  I couldn’t help but wonder if she thought the echo was a response.  She would call and call and call, then go back to feeding.  
This morning the pond has several voices speaking to me.  A flicker calls from the top of the snag where they nest.  A red-winged blackbird is proud to let the world know which patch of bullrushes is his.  I hear a raven croak off in the distance.  Even farther I hear the unison bugle of cranes -- a pair.  Even the wind talks as it gusts in chilly blasts.  
Usually the call of sandhill cranes brings joy to my heart. When we arrived at Floating Island Broken Toe was no where to be seen.. but now,  an hour later she comes walking over the rise, still calling her plaintive bugle.  Where is her mate?

It is the same pattern as yesterday.  Many calls, then she feeds for a while.  Twice I’ve counted the frequency of her plaintive calls: once was 10 times per minute; once 13 times per minute.  Calling lasts twenty minutes or more. 

Oh how I hope to see a speck come parachuting down, out of the bright blue sky.  I expect there would be a very vocal reunion.  If not ... will her calls attract another lone bird?  We know cranes to find new mates, but how soon?

April 14:  

It has been a fascinating day at Floating Island.  Repeated bugling has filled the depression that holds Floating Island Lake.  The tall cliffs behind the pond hold the sound in.  Eventually we realize there are four sandhill cranes!  We look carefully and find Broken Toe.  When her foot is up and her body is either facing us or away from us we can spot the toe.  From her side the toe is virtually impossible to see. 

The cranes all seem unsettled.  Gradually we form an opinion, but can’t be sure exactly what is happening.  Two of the cranes are obviously a mated pair -- they unison bugle together. Broken Toe is there and a fourth crane.  Is the fourth a year old youngster?  We are quite sure the fourth crane is not Broken Toe’s mate.  There doesn’t seem to be any connection between the two. 

Definitely harassing between the cranes.  Several chases, even in the air.  Dale took an aerial shot which clearly shows a crane almost biting Broken Toe’s leg!  It is becoming apparent the mated pair want to take over the pond.

No more plaintive calling by Broken Toe, but no sign of a mate either.  It has been an amazing morning.  Over and over again bugling has filled this little valley.  The cranes are here sometimes and often fly to the marshy swale to the east where we can still hear them.  Very unsettled!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Sketching in Yellowstone

When we are in Yellowstone all too often when the action is happening I’m photographing.  No time to sketch. I draw later from my photographs.  
Other times nothing much is happening and I look around for something to sketch.  So much of my best ‘on location’ sketching has no story.  Today’s post will be a series of these sketches ... and will give me a little time to finish up the art and photos for what is to come.  Soon I’ll start a three part series on Broken Toe, a sandhill crane we have watched in Yellowstone for several years.  

Two sandhill cranes at Blacktail Ponds.  We always look carefully at each crane we see at Blacktail Ponds, hoping we’ll see Pegleg again.  Pegleg is a crane who has just one foot -- two legs, but missing one foot.  We first became aware of her in 1997 and last saw her spring of 2011.  We didn’t see her this spring.
I like sketching bison! They are big and often close to the road and often moving slowly.

In some areas of Yellowstone’s northern range virtually every tree that has succeeded in growing out in the open, succeeded because one or more boulders offered just a litter more protections than the open sagebrush.
More bison
I was waiting, hoping pikas would make an appearance amongst this tumble of rocks.  Friends reported they had seen them here and we have in years past.  No pika for me on this day, but it was just warm enough to sit outside and sketch.
I look forward to every full moon.  I went to bed before it rose on the night of the full moon, May 6;  but I got up early enough on the 8th to watch it slip behind Sepulcher Mountain when it set.
Getting up early on another morning was rewarded by an encounter with two white-tailed jackrabbits.
We often see marmots in this classic pose, watching their world.  He can slip into the rocks in a moment when danger appears.  
Way off in the distance this red-tailed hawk had a nest.  When he perched in this nearby snag I worked on this sketch, sketching him with binoculars.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I'm Back!

I’m back! I really haven’t been busy mowing my lawn for the past two months as my last post suggested. But I have been busy photographing, sketching and writing. Dale and I just spent about six weeks in Yellowstone and another week at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Central Oregon. Day after day we have been doing what this blog is all about, i.e. “An artist watching nature and nature watching me.”

We’ve been making a springtime trip to Yellowstone since 1995. The first year we stayed only five days, but it whetted our appetite for a longer stay. Since Dale’s retirement in 1996 we’ve come for several weeks each spring. At first we camped and stayed in May. Then we found we can rent a little cabin during the off season and arrive even earlier.

Each year we arrive in Yellowstone full of anticipation. How much snow will there be? Did the animals winter well? Will we see a great grey owl? Part of each spring will be filled with events we expect; snow squalls, newborn bison calves, sandhill cranes bugling, wolves, reconnecting with good friends .... and each springs brings something new and another chapter in various ongoing sagas.

We drive into the park on April 12. A year ago the park was still deep in snow -- snowfall way above average. This year we are amazed at how little snow there is. The mountain tops will have snow for several more weeks, but the valleys of the northern range are already bare. Blacktail Ponds and Floating Island Lake are both thawed! There are even little peeks of grass as far as we go today, to the eastern end of Little America. We’ve never seen spring so advanced at this time of year. 

There was heavy winter kill a year ago, but this year the elk and bison look to be in good shape, very little indication of boney ribs showing through their winter pelt. Last year’s dried ground cover is thicker and fuller than we usually see. Until last year, Yellowstone had been suffering from a decade long drought. The heavy snowfall during the 2010-11 winter filled many small ponds that had been bone dry. This year they still hold water -- but will they still later on in the summer? Precipitation during the 2011-12 winter was, once again, below average.

 At this time of year only the highway through the northern range of Yellowstone is open, between Gardiner, Montana and Cooke City. In the park only one half of one campground is open. Gradually more and more roads will open, but for now we savor the solitude Yellowstone has to offer. We eat a late lunch at Blacktail Ponds. One snow squall and then another passes through. Blustery. A patch of sun reaches the distant mountains briefly. Fresh white snow flashes white against the dark sky. Another squall smothers the mountain in grayness.

On our first day we get a glimpse of the Mollie wolf pack, a nice look at a large grizzly walking the edge of the Lamar River, and an encounter with a raven.

 The raven flew to a nearby Douglas fir when we parked at Hellroaring overlook. The raven is one of the glossiest I have seen. She is perched at eye level about 50 feet away. The raven fluffs her full head, bows and makes the knocking sound typical of female ravens. She preens, talks and preens some more. One of her calls is very quiet -- little soft chorus frog songs! We’ve never heard that call before -- a good way to start our
Yellowstone spring.