Spring into Summer: Celebrating Month 2 of the YPP!

Bears are spread across the high country. Moose have taken up residency near shady water. Baby birds are fledging left and right. The bright yellows and greens of spring wildflowers have been replaced by the purples and blues of lupines and geraniums. Pronghorn are staking out territories, and bull bison are beginning to spar for access to females. Its eighty degrees in the afternoon, and clouds of pollen are wafting off the grasses that are already losing their rich green color. Everyone is sneezing, and everyone else is gawking at the roadside elk.

Two months into the Yellowstone Phenology Project, and I have been amazed by how dynamic this world is. Every day something wraps up until the next year. Every day something happens for the first time in 12 months. If last month was the month of awakening, this is the month of color. Here's a recap of where we've been and what we've seen in the last 30 days, and here is a recap of the first month!
Thank you all for following this project. It's been a blast, and I'll keep it going as long as I can!






 














 



 




 





Spring: A Month of Photographs!

Phenology: the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

Today marks the one month celebration of the Yellowstone Phenology Project! According to analytics, The Green Man has seen much more traffic this month than ever before, and I want to thank all of you for making that happen. Please continue to share these links on FB and other social media, and please subscribe to this blog using the email box on the sidebar!

To celebrate the success of this project, here are some video highlights from this month. Enjoy!











It has been a fun challenge to produce diverse and interesting photographs that represent the fast-paced seasonal change here in the Northern Rockies. Today I wanted to recap the amazing month that we've had here. Snow has melted off in the valleys and mid-elevations. fledglings, pups, calves, and fawns are being welcomed into the world by healthy, happy parents. The landscape has changed from a dull brown to a thousand neon greens. People are seeing their neighbors again. Everything smells like charcoal grills and sweet cottonwoods. Everything is coated in pollen, and our most colorful spring migrants have arrived. These are the weeks that everyone here lives for.

Change happens quickly yet can be hard to notice on a day-to-day basis, so lets see how things have progressed from May 9 to June 9. Thanks again everyone, and keep watching!
































The Yellowstone Phenology Project: 5-9 Grizzly Fishing


Phenology: the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, 
especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.


I'm going to try something here. I want to post a photo or video every day through the spring, summer, and fall. Frank C. Craighead Jr's book "A Naturalist Guide to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks" is an amazing resource that walks us chronologically through the seasons, pointing out what animals are present in the valley, what they are eating, what plants are flowering, and how all of the cogs in the ecosystem clock are turning each week. I thought it would be fun to capture, photographically, this annual march through time. Change is the only constant around here. Like Ferris Bueller famously said, "life moves pretty fast. If you don't look up once in a while, you might miss it." Six months from now, I hope to be able to use this little project like a flipbook to watch the seasons unfold and meld chronologically. Here we go,we'll start with a bang.

This young male grizzly has recently emerged from his first solo hibernation without mom (the famous Grizzly 610). He walks the shore, looking for dead cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish that have been frozen, preserved, in ice all winter long.






























    and a bonus video to kick things off!



The Most Amazing Bird You've Probably Never Heard Of

[This is part three of a series of posts featuring photos from our March programs in Yellowstone with Natural Habitat Adventures and Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science Schools].

American Dipper courtship posture.






































When I first came to the Yellowstone Ecosystem, there were a couple species I really wanted to see. At the top of the list was this peculiar little bird, the American Dipper. They live along rivers and creeks in the Rocky Mountains from Canada down into Mexico, and forage on a prey that nothing else has figured out quite how to access. It's the entrepreneur of the animal kingdom. For every potential food source, there is something that will eventually figure out how to eat it. Insects breed, lay eggs, hatch, grow, metamorphose, and thrive all over the rocks in turbulent mountain streams. But except for the dippers, nothing has quite figured out how to eat them. Sure, trout wait downstream for bugs that get peeled off their feet by the swift current, but dippers go right to the rocks and pick off insects directly.



Hunting for insects in the creek.


























In a great example of a burgeoning evolutionary trajectory, the Dipper has very few adaptations for its lifestyle. He is a songbird, just like a thrush, a tanager, a waxwing, or a robin. He has no webbed feet or dagger-like bill. What he does have is oxygen-rich blood and a slow metabolism for life in cold water, not to mention some waterproof preening-oil. His biggest asset is its charisma. He dives into the water, paddling the rapids with his wings, sometimes popping up fifty yards downstream, on the other side of a class II or III rapid!

Swimming.


























When he does emerge, he usually does so with a bill full of stoneflies and caddisflies. In the nesting season, he might take these insects and fly right through a waterfall to get to his nest on a dry ledge behind the cascade. If there are other dippers around, he will storm out from behind that waterfall and karate-kick the intruder right into the water.


Territorial dispute.


























He perches on rocks along the shore, bobbing (dipping) up and down, trying to look like the moving water behind him.  "Bird and stream, inseparable," as John Muir said. A female lands nearby, his dipping speeds up, and he starts to sing. His rambling warble sings on and on without pause, almost mimicking the musical sound of the proverbial babbling brook. She starts dipping up and down too and pacing around on her rock. Both birds take off and chase each other over the stream, up into the trees, into the sky, and back over the water, splashing down together right in the middle of an eddying pool.


Courtship flight.



























Watching these dippers along the Gardiner River over the last two weeks was mesmerizing. One of those little jewels in nature you would only find if you already knew where to look.


Gardiner River, and the Boiling River hot spring steaming towards the background.


Photographing Yellowstone's Northern Range: Part 1


Barronette Peak in Northeastern Yellowstone. Mountain goats ford through snowdrifts draped over these 12,000 ft outcrops.





















The Wildlife Expeditions team just came back from two weeks in the Northern Range of Yellowstone, leading Natural Habitat Adventure's two new departures called "Photographing Yellowstone's Wild Wolves." This was one of the most challenging tasks we've ever undertaken, considering that wolves generally don't want anything to do with humans. So we put together an itinerary featuring six full days in the heart of North America's best wolf habitat to have the best chance possible. Each morning we were in prime locations to watch Mother Nature's show unfold before us. We saw fantastic wolf behavior through our spotting scopes, but photograph them we did not.

Photographing American Dippers along Lava Creek.

















However, my mantra for finding wildlife is: "Find the food, find the animal." If you're looking for trout, find where the bugs spawn. If you're looking for moose, find where the willow bushes are budding out. By extension, if you're searching for Yellowstone's keystone predator, the gray wolf, you'll come across nearly everything in the food web in the process. We put ourselves in the best places to see wolves, and walked away with beautiful, bursting photographic portfolios of Yellowstone's winter diversity. I'll be posting some themed entries to try to capture a cross-section of what we encountered these weeks.

Elk briefly investigating us before returning to foraging in fresh snow in the Jardine highlands.


























To start things off, I wanted to thank our travelers for being the pioneers of this new itinerary. The departures were sold out only a few hours after they were announced. I hoped our group would therefore be the easy-going type that would enthusiastically jump at whatever we wanted to throw at them. Turned out this was true, and then some. We had the time and flexibility to walk along rivers photographing dippers, to wait an hour or more for a herd of bison to arrange themselves just so in a landscape shot, and to snowshoe off-trail to a waterfall that neither guide had been to (which I am now revealing to the eleven of you who followed me!). Thank you all!

While photographing duck and dippers on the Gardiner River, an eagle flew in to scoop up scraps from a winter-kill carcass.



























Yellowstone's Northern Range can be best defined by its diversity. The western side of the range is largely snow-free and spring-like. This oasis under 5,000 ft in elevation is already seeing spring arrivals like bluebirds and meadowlarks. It is the winter destination for many bison and elk that have left the high plateaus looking for more accessible food. As you work your way east across the range, the landscape becomes wintry, stark, and extreme. The bison are frosty and the rivers are icy. Cooke City, at the easternmost corner of the range, is under so much snow, you're better off parking your truck and snowmobiling down main street (the only street). The dwellers of Cooke are dreaming about their upcoming vacations to Texas and the French Riviera.

Black-billed Magpies en-route to a carcass, perfectly demonstrating different points in their wing beat.




A magpie picking lice and ticks from the coat of a shedding cow elk outside Mammoth Hot Springs. Mutualism at its best!



























Bull elk on a rainy day. South-facing knolls like this one are often greening up while the surrounding landscape is still under feet of snow.

Encounters in Yellowstone

I never enjoy hearing that alarm go off at 4 AM in Cooke City, but I have learned to treasure this morning. It is the moment when our group is finally tied together-- in the way many groups are united-- by a common uncomfortable experience. My travelers have to finally ante up. Up to this point, they have just had to climb into the vehicles and let us whisk them away to amazing places in (generally) total comfort. But this morning is when folks face the facts that wolf watching is never easy. No matter how fresh the fruit, how experienced the guides, or how nice the equipment, there is no way to get around the reality that the best experiences in this ecosystem happen at first light, if they happen at all. Discomfort is required.

I like getting to breakfast early to watch the group arrive over a cup of tea. Many folks stumble into the dim café, sit down next to the fireplace, and quietly look down at their cup of coffee, groggily sipping away. Others come in with their guns drawn, hollering about the snowmobilers ripping down main street at 3 in the morning. Others arrive in a bewildered and disheveled haze, clearly not having woken up this early in years. The most straitlaced traveler lets his guard down a bit, arriving in purple sweatpants and eating his bacon with his hands. Everything smells like coffee and blueberry pancakes. There is a blizzard outside that has to be navigated in the darkness to get to the restaurant from the hotel a hundred yards away.

As we rounded the corner, I looked to the right to respond to a traveler sitting in my passenger seat, and noticed sheep feet whiz by on the cliff edge just out the window. I screeched to a halt and reversed, and we were able to spend half an hour enjoying this big ram enjoying some dead grasses growing between rocky outcrops. The deep cut bands in the horn indicate the age of the sheep. The horns grow year-round, but much more slowly in the winter because of the poor forage quality. Each of the prominent bands represents one winter that this sheep has survived.

Our naturalist friend Dan Hartman has these inquisitive pine martens living around his cozy log cabin. A world-class naturalist of an endangered breed, Dan invites us into his home to share stories and cookies with us. Occasionally, one of these beautiful martens appears just outside the living room window to listen in on Dan's tales.

When the temperature drops, steam explodes from Yellowstone's thermal features. A frosty morning along the Firehole River. Many of Yellowstone's largest hot springs and geysers drain into this river, keeping it open all winter long. Bison congregate along the riverbank to forage on exposed vegetation right along the shore. Every winter morning in Yellowstone feels like the first time that humans have witnessed this magic place.

In the summer, as many as 5,000 people might congregate along the boardwalks to watch each eruption of Old Faithful. This night, there were four of us. All alone, we could hear the water gurgling inside the geyser cone and feel the water blasting into the sky. The steam froze instantly and geyser snow fell on our noses.


After a cold, misty morning, every branch is coated in ice, turning this burned skeleton forest into a crystal chandelier. It is often after the most unbearable weather that we are rewarded with nature's most beautiful shows.

Alpenglow on the Tetons reminds me to appreciate this view each time I pass by. The burst of color lasts only a minute. This show precedes every clear sunrise, making sure that I never regret waking up in the dark in this valley.


Trumpeter Swans fly north to Yellowstone to access the rivers and streams kept open by the influx of geothermal waters. After a long bath and preening session, this swan extends his wings to ensure that his feathers are aligned just so. This bird, once threatened with extinction due to feather trade overharvest, was rediscovered and recovered in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. This region is now one of the best places in the country to see this magnificent bird.





























I go outside and shovel a foot of snow off the roof of the vehicle. Then I figure out which of the four gas pumps in town will turn on that morning. I need four-wheel drive just to make a turn around the pump without sliding into the dozen snowmobiles lined up next to the service garage. The only lights in town are coming from the Sinclair gas sign, the inside of our cozy restaurant, and a streetlight down the road illuminating a dog and nothing else of importance.


My anxiety builds alongside the group’s. You can be in the right place (Yellowstone’s northern reaches), at the right time (before first light), with every possible controllable variable under control. Then all you can do is hope. You’ve flown in from New York or New Zealand, paid a thousand dollars or a million, been motivated by mere curiosity or by a lifetime dream to see a wolf in the wild, but the animals are the great equalizers. They will show up or they won’t. At some point, between bites of muffin or sips of coffee, this realization gradually materializes in every traveler, and we roll out of Cooke City, unified, into the first glow of dawn.

Wildcat

A bobcat is so rare to see in Yellowstone, or practically anywhere else for that matter, that I thought this little guy deserved his own post. We were cruising alongside the Gibbon River in the snow coaches when we caught word that a bobcat was seen hunting ducks along the Madison just moments ago. I didn't know how fast our bombardiers could drive until we hammered down for the bend in the river where he was spotted. When we arrived, a fellow guide had spotting scopes trained on the underside of a big boulder next to the river. The cat creeped out from beneath the rock and onto the shoreline next to us, slinking its way upstream to occupy a dark corner near the water's edge where a couple of mallards were dabbling. As the cat got ready to leap out over the water, the ducks began quacking nervously and paddling against the current away from the suspicious figure in the shadows. With his cover blown, the bobcat moved to the sunny side of the rock and sat down for an afternoon nap.
Always something new to be seen around here. I tell my travelers that I see something new every time I go outside, whether I'm out for an hour or a week. Usually it's something small. Sometimes, it's a bobcat.


Stalking along the riverbank. Notice the ducks in the background.

Drifting off to sleep.

Hunting along the Madison River.

Breaking trail.



Photography Expedition into the Winter Wild



 "By wresting a precious particle of the world from time and space and holding it absolutely still, a great photograph can explode the totality of our world, such that we never see it quite the same again." -Robert Draper, National Geographic, 150th anniversary photography issue.

It was with this quote in mind that we set off into Yellowstone. Our goal was to enter into these parks with the attitude of the famous expeditions before us. To witness this place for the first time. To feel alone on the planet amid the gurgling and thumping geysers that exhale steam like sleeping dragons. To hold our breaths as coyotes slink by with noses to an invisible trail. To share in the rigors of life in the cold alongside frosty bison and ravenous elk. And to capture this experience in photographs that would transcend their two dimensional borders. Photographs that capture the sound of bighorn sheep clambering on the cliffs, the sulfury smell of a hot spring, and the feeling of the air freezing in your lungs with every breath.

Entering the park with photography in mind allows us to seek out the subtleties in this environment. We search for wolves and moose, but we also sit still, and take in the experience. A great photograph is taken deliberately. Many of the most powerful photographs are taken after days, weeks, or years of soaking in an experience before the lens cap is ever taken off. A wise fortune cookie once said "A problem clearly stated is a problem half-solved." This is true of photography. What, precisely, draws me to this scene? Once the answer crystalizes, turn the camera on.


Elk along the Gros Ventre River

Pines drowned and petrified by geothermal outwash

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Frosty morning in the Lamar Valley
Ice crystals



Mammoth hot springs at night
Ravens together on an extinct thermal cone



















Coyote on the trail

Bison digging for grass


Bald eagle landing


We were also lucky enough to witness some amazing wolf/elk interactions. A female black wolf has an elk pinned against a cliff in the below video clip. 


Lamar Canyon black female 926F pulling on a carcass


"Winter in Yellowstone" On WWF/NHA's "Good Nature"

Hi All,
I'm also now writing for Natural Habitat Adventures and World Wildlife Fund's travel blog, "Good Nature." I'll be updating The Green Man with links to those blog posts when they become available.
Here is a link to my most recent entry on that site:
Good Nature: Winter in Yellowstone


Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park




Halfway Around the Yellowstone Sun

When we last left off, I was wishing Mother Nature to provide us many bears and wolves over the summer. Indeed, we had a great season for bears. Our famous “399,” now approaching 20 years old, had a new set of triplets that awed visitors all season. Scarface was out in northern Yellowstone eating whatever his worn teeth could still chew on. Wolves are scarce and seem to be getting scarcer as hunting pressure along the borders increases and elk populations decline. Though wolves were hard to find, we had amazing experiences with all the other wildlife.

My late mentor, Jeanne, taught me that the best shows in nature happen early, early, early in the morning. Though I try to explain this to my travelers, they don’t always have the drive to wake up before dawn, and as a result they miss things like bison being born in the sunrise over the Absaroka Mountains. Twin moose calves were raised happily in a big campground in the park this year. In the dawn light the calves spent all summer wandering unnoticed between campsites in the hour of dawn light before the humans stir. I came to check on them in October, and they are still doing just fine at their regular campsite in Loop B. The National Park Service should probably approach them about paying campsite fees.










Yellowstone is a place where seasons are short. Except for winter. From week to week everything changes. One wildflower starts to bloom as another curls up and fades until next spring. It seems like by the time moose calves are steady on their feet, some of the migratory songbirds are already itching to leave. The elk have just started growing their antlers when the fall colors are upon us and bugling fills the woods. No such thing as stasis. The earth seems to hurtle around the sun so fast this time of the year.





Suddenly, pronghorn are already galloping around the summer sun-dried pastures of the park, and the bison are rolling around in the dry dirt. American Dipper chicks have begrudgingly surrendered to diving into the cold, swift mountain streams. Until now, they stood at the water’s edge and beg for food from the increasingly impatient parents. Before we even recognized that summer was in full swing, huckleberry season was over and the serviceberries were producing like never before. Grosbeaks, chipmunks, waxwings, and black bears swarm these bushes, and I can’t resist grabbing handfuls of berries as I pass on my mountain bike.






Now the leaves are turning and the photographers line up in processions at Oxbow Bend. Grizzlies return to the valley floors, patrolling the park in search of whatever can be digested. As Dan Hartman stacks cord after cord of firewood in preparation for a long Beartooth winter, pine martens dart in and out of the cracks between logs, looking for the perfect cranny in his woodpile to use for winter quarters.









Tourists empty out of the park, leaving the geysers and hot springs open to our peaceful sunset enjoyment. The grizzlies and black bears wander into the hills to find a place to hole up until March, and the residents of Jackson prepare their own dens for the big winter to come.