Monday, July 29, 2019

Bison and pikas and bears, oh my!

We love Yellowstone and try to return whenever we can.  This year it helped that we had two highpoint climbs planned on either side of it; I'm sure we can come up with plenty of reasons to come back to Wyoming and Montana in the future.  Every time we visit we see new things and find more other things to see eventually.

Starting with Granite Peak in the Beartooth Mountains, we had a small window before our Pika Project class for an initial climb attempt.  Monday weather was predicted to be crappy up high so we pushed the Granite start back one day and instead went touring through the park.

Hey, we haven't stopped at Tower Fall before.  The parking lot was empty (our sleep schedule was on "up early, back to bed early") and we had a nice little hike down to the river.  The Yellowstone River is so beautiful, almost a painting:

A closer look at some steam coming up from the bank - yay for geothermal activity!

"Tower" formations that give this area its name:

More towers and the so-named waterfall:

I always make a beeline for the Mud Volcano, one of my favorite places in the park.  The mudpots were too wet to go "blurp blurp" and they were mostly bubbling muddy water instead, but that's OK, it's all still fun to watch.

The Sulphur Caldron across the road:

When part of your parking lot drops down into a steaming hole, put a fence around it and call it a new attraction:

This caldron was really churning it up!

Churning Cauldron video - looks pretty hot:

This might be the Sizzling Basin, or maybe the Cooking Hillside - I think we need to go back, I don't know all the names yet:

But I do know what this is  :)

A brief stop at the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone for a short walk, a snack and an overlook:

Hello, Marmot:

Amazing columnar basalt hanging over the road, ready to drop stones at the slightest provocation (or minor quake as is common in this area):

Brief interlude so we could go climb a mountain (spoiler if you haven't been following the blog - we made it on our first try)...

Then - the Pika Project class!  We super enjoyed our wolf class with Mom 4 years ago and have been thinking about returning to Lamar Buffalo Ranch ever since.  When the pika face appeared in the class catalog, it was pretty much a done deal as to which one I'd pick.  So cute!!

This particular class was a "citizen science" version, meaning we'd be participating in actual useful studies of pikas in their native habitats.  There are several sites around Yellowstone that are checked once or twice a year to see if the pikas are still there.  So we'd be looking for actual pikas, and/or signs of their presence.  And hopefully actual pikas.

We hiked up to a talus slope, spread out along the bottom, and sat for 15 minutes looking for the little creatures.  During our first couple of surveys we didn't see or hear any, but just sitting and listening to the wind blow and enjoying the setting was very relaxing.

Then our instructor Matt showed us how to set up a 4-quadrant grid centered on a specific spot.  We collected data that included location, elevation, amount of various types of vegetation, and max/min temperature over and under the rocks.

Then we set about to look for signs of pikas - like little poop pellets!  It didn't take long to locate several examples so we could all see what we were looking for:

Pika latrine:

Checking under all the rocks:

We got to play with a couple toys - temperature guns and a FLIR heat camera.  I liked the engineering data collection aspect of the project, and it was a fun group of people to learn with.

And a beautiful day for a hike:

Our next talus field was most definitely inhabited by a marmot:

No obvious pika here either, but it was an interesting talus field to wander around in:

Lunch break in the shade:

Photo credit - Holly Williams

Our last location of the day - sitting and watching for any movement.  Nope, none yet.

Thoroughly checking the area for signs:

Temperature measurements - the afternoon sun on this slope meant we probably wouldn't see a pika even if they lived here.  They prefer cooler temperatures and were probably hiding from the heat.

Shining a light into the crevices:

Photo credit - Holly Williams

A new "haystack" - vegetation that pikas collect to sustain themselves through the winter (they don't hibernate):

That was a good sign that pikas were likely still living there, even though we didn't see or hear one.

And... John put his phone down on a rock and forgot it there that afternoon.  That turned out to be fortuitous because when he went back later, it was a cool evening and he got to see a pika!  It is a little hard to see but it's sitting on the rock in the middle with some plants in its mouth - too cool!

John also saw a marten!  but didn't get a picture of it.  We were psyched to hear about his animal sightings.

The next day we hiked above Hellroaring Creek in another beautiful area:

As soon as we sat down, a pika scampered across the rocks.  Super cool!  Several of us got to watch it run in and out of sight, and eventually it stopped on this branch just long enough for me to snap a photo - thank you pika!

No surprise, plenty of pika signs around here:

Around the corner we sat at another large talus slope and this time a pika showed up to yell and squeak at us.  We'd heard the squeak sound plenty of times before but not the descending 3-tone chirps.  We were enthralled.  What a treat.

Watching for pikas amid the rocks:

Doing our survey and collecting data:

Photo credit - Holly Williams

Plenty of fresh haystacks:

We had a lovely hike back to Tower, stopping in a couple places to look for animals (squirrels, marmots... a couple mosquitos)

Our final location was also a success - one pika poking in and out of the rocks near me and John, and two cavorting on the other end of the viewing line.  Quite an excellent day.

And then it got more amazing - someone noticed a BEAR foraging around in the field behind us.  Whoa, that's unexpected.  Bear spray in hand (many sprays in many hands), we stood and watched.  And yelled and waved, but she ignored us:

Eventually we heard something that sounded like a seal - ?? and the bear returned to where she came from, but THEN she showed up again with 2 cubs!  No way!  Since she was coming directly across our talus field survey area, we wrapped everything up right quick and moved out of their path.

They still ignored us, just going about their business of roaming around and playing around (the cubs are adorable!)

Quite the show that day, between the pikas and the bears.  Yellowstone is amazing.

Checking out the spot where Mama Bear had been...

That was an excellent class, so glad we were able to be a part of it.

Some resources from our instructor, Matt:

Pika movie trailer - I so want this to be an actual movie!

Pika video overload!!

Thank you all for the fun and interesting experience:

While at the Lamar Ranch we met another group of folks taking a fly fishing class.  They told a story about seeing a bison slide down a steep riverbank into a pool, and when it came up it was limping.  Possibly a broken leg.  Poor thing.

On the other hand, maybe a future carcass?  The evening after our class, John and I drove over to the spot and saw what appeared to be a dead bison on the far bank.  Not much was going on around it, so we set our alarms for oh-dark-hundred and returned at first light.  First ones there!

Which was amazingly perfect, because as soon as we walked up to the overlook bluff, a dark wolf trotted away from the carcass.  It was carrying a hunk of meat and it walked a ways away to bury it.  We sat transfixed, looking through binoculars at this beautiful animal.  Eventually the wolf casually made its way through the sage toward the far hills, while two bald eagles took their turn collecting breakfast.

That -- was -- awesome.  Worth getting up early!  The parking lot was full (and the wolf was just a speck in the distance) when we left not long later.

Thank you wolf!

Pronghorns - I still think they're amazing and neat to watch, but there's a suicidal pronghorn above Pinedale that played chicken with our truck on our way to and from (yes, twice!) the trailhead for Gannett Peak.  So I'm not sure about the overall intelligence of this animal.  Or maybe it was just that one particular pronghorn.  Anyway, they're (mostly) pretty neat.

Speaking of animals on the road... hello big boy, sure we'll stop and wait for you:

Whoa, that is a large animal... should have pulled the side mirror in for him:

We hadn't stopped at the West Thumb geyser basin before, I'm not even sure I knew this was here.  We walked up just in time for a ranger walk.  Always love those.  We did a tour of the boardwalk and admired the colors:

Sure is a nice view of the geysers, lake, and mountains in the distance:

Almost clear enough to drink...

Looks like a fun excursion:

Colorful pools of steam:

The ranger told us that the Ledge Geyser had recently started erupting, perhaps every 30-45 minutes.  Cool!  We waited around for it, and can report that it's neat to see a "newly erupting geyser" even if it doesn't have the height or volume of Old Faithful:

One last stop, an afternoon at Old Faithful geyser basin.  We found out that Grand Geyser was supposed to be erupting soon, so we moseyed on over there.  A large crowd was waiting, looks like we didn't miss it.  So we waited.  And waited.  It was well, well past its predicted time (by maybe 2+ hours) when it finally took off.

It was big and loud and worth the wait!

After it slowed down, it actually started up again, this time with multiple streams of water shooting up.  Sweet!

I had plenty of time to capture a bit of it on video, pretty spectacular:

And for good luck, a photo of Old Faithful - thank you sir!

As always, Yellowstone was amazing, unexpected, and beautiful.  Can't wait to go back!