Yellowstone National Park: Part 3. Red dog at play!

When I visited Yellowstone in 2016, seeing the American baby bison at play was one of my favorite sightings; I was certainly looking forward to seeing them again in May 2022. They did not disappoint; the first group of bison (Bison bison) that stopped us on the road on Day 1 included a good number of babies.

During our week’s stay in Yellowstone, the weather was very changeable. On one and the same day, we would have snow flurries, cold winds and hours of bright sunshine and balmy warmth leading us to shed warm jackets. That didn’t stop us from seeing bison everywhere though.

As you drive through Yellowstone, your progress is often slowed down or stopped as herds of bison take over the roads. They have the right of way, so cars need to stop as the group walks around the parked vehicles. People are not allowed to get out as the protective parents could seriously harm anyone nearby.

Sitting in your stopped car does give you a good look at the molting adults and cute youngsters as they pass by your window, sometimes within a couple of feet.

Bison are the largest mammals in the USA. They were designated the country’s National Mammal on 9 May 2016 through the National Bison Legacy Act.

They literally go everywhere. When we walked through thermal areas, we often saw bison “patties” lying about.

When I asked a ranger how they could traverse the hot springs, she said that their hooves can withstand the heat; in some areas, their thick fur even shields them and they lie down to rest in the warmth for a while. However, rangers have seen some with burns on their legs.

Bison patties are also left in grasslands, hillsides and forests. I don’t recall seeing many on roads, however.

Most calves are born in late April and May. They can stand within an hour of birth and begin walking soon thereafter. It doesn’t take long at all for them to become rather independent even though their mothers care for them for about a year.

Apart from their obvious small size, the baby bison are notable for their reddish coloring; their fur will turn adult brown during their first mid-winter. When they are about 2 months of age, the characteristic shoulder humps begin to emerge.

The babies can be extremely playful; their relatively small size enables them to run and jump in seeming jubilance, leading to the nickname “red dogs”.

Perhaps it was the climatic circumstances, but we didn’t see as many playful red dogs as I’d seen in 2016. One youngster did give us a sample of youthful exuberance, however, running, jumping and generally exuding joy.

I did learn this year that Yellowstone’s bison are quite unique. The Park is the only place with bison that are direct descendants (without cattle genes) of the millions of early bison that roamed the area in prehistoric times.

By the late 1800s, only a few hundred bison remained, having been hunted to near-extinction and deprived of needed habitat. Then, by 1902, poachers had reduced Yellowstone’s herd to only about two dozen animals.

Today, their Yellowstone population varies from 2,300 to 5,500 animals and there are groups at other National Parks as well. The Native American Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council collaborates with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national parks to tribal lands.

It’s so fortunate that strides have been made in preserving these iconic animals for us to see in person. And dedicated people are providing resources for people who want to learn more about bison: https://allaboutbison.com/

Yellowstone National Park: Part 2B.  The living creatures of Mammoth Hot Springs

Continuing our tour through the Mammoth Hot Springs. It was a surprise for me to learn that the hot spring colors are produced by living creatures! Thermophiles are microorganisms that thrive in heat. Those living in the hottest water are colorless or yellow.

The people of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes came to Mammoth to collect minerals to make white paint.

Cooler waters contain orange, brown and green thermophiles. Sunlight also influences which colors you may see.

 

 

When hot springs rise up through limestone, they dissolve calcium carbonate. The resulting calcite is then deposited, creating travertine terraces.

These are the Palette Spring terraces coming down from the thermal pool above them.

.To my surprise, there were quite a few birds hopping about, including a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) and very colorful yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata).

 

Mountain bluebirds (Sialia currucoides) were a delight to see.

 

The trail through the Hot Springs complex winds around for more than 2 miles. As I was walking along one area at the bottom of a steep hill, some fellow tourists approaching me said there was a coyote going up the hill further on. I hurried on and caught sight of him as he neared the top.

You reach the Upper Terraces by climbing steep stairs.

There were more trees along the upper pathway with fumaroles (venting steam) nearby.

I did catch sight of some eagles soaring over the large flat springs expanse, but I was happy to go back down to the lower terraces. (Unfortunately, sliding my gloved hand down a wooden railing on the descent gave me a splinter in my palm that I did not manage to get out completely. I had a very sore hand for quite some time: unwanted souvenir!)

I lost track of exactly which places had which names — looking them up on the Internet is not always helpful because the Mammoth features have changed considerably over time. When a hot spring remains dormant for a long time, it will eventually be covered by soil and again create an environment for trees and flowers. To complicate matters, the names of sites have changed over time.

The name Cleopatra Spring has been given to at least three different sites over the years. The original Cleopatra Spring eventually came to be called Minerva Spring. This was, I believe, the current Cleopatra Terrace.

 

When trees are flooded by hot water, they absorb calcium carbonate. This hardens their veins so they cannot absorb “normal” water and nutrients and they harden into what look like petrified trees which may stand for decades.

The hot springs were an early commercialized attraction for those seeking relief from ailments in the mineral waters.

Today, to preserve these unique and fragile features, soaking in the hot springs is prohibited.

Next stop in Yellowstone: The adorable red dogs!

Yellowstone National Park: Part 2A. Mammoth Hot Springs and women in the park

On 19 May 2022, Joan and I had our first full day in Yellowstone National Park (YNP).  This two-part blog covers what we did in the morning: an excursion to the Mammoth Hot Springs, only 5 miles from the Gardiner/Roosevelt Arch entrance. Shortly after passing through the gate, we caught sight of a river running alongside the road. We had no idea that within 20 days, this river would rise and take out part of the road on which we traveled! The recovery effort has also been phenomenal and the National Park Service has done a great job opening up the park again.

About 10 minutes into the park, Joan called out that she had seen a bear! She pointed to my side of the road and, looking up, I saw the bear on a hillside beside some rocks — she was enormous (perhaps the biggest we saw). She was also accompanied by offspring so I began scrambling to get my camera. By the time we got to a pull-off, they had disappeared behind big boulders and did not reappear. She looked somewhat like the (blurry) bear below that we saw another day when we couldn’t stop (rangers were present and moved everyone along). This spotting was certainly an exciting beginning to our YNP adventure.

This sighting taught me that Joan would be an excellent wildlife spotter even when guiding the car along winding roads with sometimes steep drop-offs at the side! It was cold our first day and we dressed warmly – long pants, sturdy shoes, sweaters, warm jackets and caps.

I was glad that we didn’t have to gallivant around in the long dresses and headgear worn by the first women who visited the park. However, the early female visitors to YNP were no “delicate flowers” as I learned from a book of their writings (Sidesaddles and Geysers: Women’s Adventures in Old Yellowstone. 1874 to 1903. Edited by M. Mark Miller).

Carrie Strayhorn wrote, after her 1882 visit to YNP, that both men and women clambered all over the mineral deposits. She and her party traveled about 400 miles on horseback through the park, leaving her with memories of “the charms of nature which go with the wilderness and wonders in all their primal glory.” Strayhorn visited Mammoth Hot Springs and we made that our first stop. (Photo from “Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage (1911) by Carrie Adell Strahorn)

At the entrance to the Mammoth site, we were met by brown-headed cowbirds (which we have in North Carolina) and black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia).

The first thermal feature we neared is called the Hymen Terrace. Old records kept at the University of Wyoming Libraries contained an enthusiastic description of this site.

As our day had started off quite overcast, this thermal did not look very colorful or terribly fascinating, so we moved on to walk along the trail.

Off to the side was a structure of some 37 feet in height (11 m) known as the Liberty Cap.

It received this name in 1871 from people who thought it resembled the caps worn by French revolutionaries who fought for freedom and liberty. It looked a bit more interesting when the skies cleared and the sun appeared.

The Mammoth site’s thermals mainly include hot springs and travertine terraces. Joan generally walks much faster than me and I stop often to photograph, so we split up to see the sights.

As Joan took off down a boardwalk, I stopped to photograph my first view of a Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). I hadn’t expected to see many birds around the thermals so it was a welcome surprise.

 

Hot springs are Yellowstone’s most common thermal features. They comprise pools, sometimes quite deep, of heated water that may be calm and clear or froth like boiling water.

Rain and snow bring water that seeps into the earth where it is heated. It is still not certain which volcanic heat source is responsible for this.

It might be the magma chamber underlying the Yellowstone Caldera or another smaller place nearby. According to researchers, only 10% of the water in the Mammoth area is above ground at any one time.

What looks like steam arises from the hot springs and this seemed to be especially the case when we were viewing them in colder temperatures. Here you can see how our view of the Palette Spring changed as the day started warming up.

 

Read on to find out what causes the colors in the hot springs!

Weather, water, wildlife, and well-being

As I continue to go through my photos from Yellowstone National Park (a lengthy process!), I will post on a few other topics that you will hopefully enjoy. 😊

I just wrote a column for a local newspaper about climate and water. All life on our earth needs water to exist — plants, animals, and humans. Water contributes to respiration, processing nutrition, photosynthesis, regulating temperature and providing a living environment for many organisms. Scientific studies are documenting the benefits for our well-being of spending time in natural areas and beautiful places for this include nature reserves and parks with ponds, wetlands, lakeshores, creeks, and rivers.

The diversity of wildlife around ponds can be delightful, especially in the summertime. You may be lucky to see mammals coming to the shoreline or pond’s edge to get a drink or have the good luck to catch sight of beavers, muskrats, minks, or otters.

Or perhaps there will be a yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) standing atop a beaver lodge, surveying its surroundings, and taking time to preen.

Reptiles and amphibians clamber onto rocks, snags, branches, and boardwalks to sun. Turtles lay their eggs close to ponds and rivers. At this the time of year, you may come across the remains of leathery eggshells left by hatched turtles (or dug up by predators).

Damsel- and dragonflies, like these amber-winged dragonflies (Perithemis tenera), are interesting to watch; they don’t even need natural water sources but will come to tubs of water containing plants like pickerelweed. Butterflies, such as these cabbage whites (Pieris rapae), “puddle” in mud, carrion and dung alongside creek and pond banks to obtain amino acids and salts in the fluids they suck up.

                 

The bugs do risk ending up as bird food. Northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) and purple martins (Progne subis) skim above and over the water, snapping up insects as they swoop and soar.

   

The tiny insects on vegetation near water can be remarkably interesting, so taking along a magnifier can increase what you see. Most leaf- and planthoppers are quite small but the glassy-winged sharpshooters (Homalodisca vitripennis) are about fingernail-sized. They consume the fluids in water-carrying tubes in plants, called xylem, and then need to expel excess water from their bodies by shooting out fluid droplets into the air.

   

The vegetation near water can also be fascinating. Indian pipes, also known as ghost plants (Monotropa uniflora), are saprophytes (not fungi) with no chlorophyll. These white, leafless plants obtain their nutrients by tapping into other plants’ resources through mycorrhizal fungi. They usually grow in clusters but can still be difficult to see. My friend Ace spotted one and introduced me to the species, for which I was quite grateful!

Many birds nest near water. Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) will raise young in boxes we put out for them, but they and other birds also like to use holes in snags near or in water. Those nests are much more difficult for predators to reach.

Birds also like to nest near water because they’re primarily insectivores in the spring and summer and there are plenty of bugs in such areas. The only hummingbird nests that I’ve been able to find were all near water; up to 60-80% of their diet comprises spiders and other bugs.

This year, I had the good fortune to see a female ruby-throated hummingbird building her nest and raising her young (previous blog). The first time I visited this wetland after the babies fledged, mama hummer came and hovered about 2 feet in front of me, as if she were greeting me. I’ve seen her on subsequent days as well.

The larger water birds, such as geese and ducks, like to bathe in ponds and rivers.

Other birds enjoy taking a bath in streams and creeks. American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) enjoy company with other species. Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) like some solitude or sharing space with a fellow jay.

           

Birds living further away from natural water resources also need to drink and bathe and that is where we can help them out. Small birds like Carolina chickadees and brown-headed nuthatches like to drink from the ant guards on which hummingbird feeders are hung.

     

Bird baths can become very popular. Eastern bluebirds and European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) very much enjoy two of mine in the front yard.

 

House finches, American robins, cedar waxwings, Carolina chickadees and gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) tend to like my backyard baths. And then they appreciate branches and nest boxes as platforms to shake out those water-laden feathers. Birding friend Ylva commented that the vigorous fluttering of this catbird would be worthy of an audition for the musical Cats!

Even if you don’t have a yard, you can put out shallow dishes or plant pot saucers in your outdoor space (steps or patio) as a place for birds to drink and cool off. If you have a balcony, it might take a while for birds to find your water source, but if you stay inside, you may see them come to sip and splash.

If you are luckily mobile, I encourage you to take some outings near waterways. The wildlife and plant diversity can be wonderful and entertaining. And in the meantime, we can all take action to conserve and preserve water:

Sometimes feared but with an endearing side – Sweet Tooth and Swayback

Today, I’d like to entertain you with a tale of two wild creatures that I’ve come to know a bit. I always enjoy learning about animals, even more so when I get to know something about their lives first-hand. Before getting to a description of Sweet Tooth and Swayback (two snapping turtles), I’ll share some interesting life facts about this reptilian species.

While box turtles often garner remarks of “how sweet,” “how cute,” and “let’s help it cross the road,” the appearance of a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) can arouse fear and dislike. Many people don’t consider them “beautiful,” and they have a reputation for being dangerous because they can cause injuries.

That is such a shame because this species doesn’t always live up to its “combative disposition when out of the water with its powerful beak-like jaws, and highly mobile head and neck” (according to Wikipedia). It’s true that they don’t want to be picked up and will react very differently from the docile box turtle, who generally pulls in its head and legs and just waits for you to leave it alone.

Unlike the box turtle, the snapper cannot withdraw its head and limbs into its shell, so its main defense is to use powerful jaws to snap and bite when feeling threatened. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) notes that: “they are normally inoffensive underwater and pose little if any danger to swimmers or waders.”

Snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water and tend not to bask like other turtles. Instead, they swim near the surface and enjoy the sun’s rays from there.

They mate in the spring; this pair was engaged in a fairly sedate encounter at an urban park.

The NCWRC notes that it’s not uncommon for the pair to snap “savagely” at one another during mating (another instance of negative language to characterize them; they could have said “vigorously”!). This pair opened their jaws to one another but were not biting.

Females can conserve sperm for several seasons so that there is some on hand when needed. So this female may have wanted to use that as she pushed the male away.

This pair of turtles, whom I saw at an Orange County pond, did seem to be having a tussle, but they also might have been contesting territory or engaging in some other behavior.

The females come out of the water to lay their eggs (about 25); you may only see their tracks in the mud and never know where they buried the clutch. The eggs have a great chance of ending up as food for other animals, such as skunks, minks, raccoons, foxes, crows, and eastern kingsnakes.

Newborn and juvenile snappers often fall prey to large fish, mammals, birds (e.g., bitterns, hawks, owls), American bullfrogs, and alligators. This great blue heron (Ardea herodias) had a small turtle for a snack and spent quite a long time trying to crush it before swallowing it. (This was not a snapper but shows how the birds eat young turtles.)

Perhaps the high newborn mortality rate accounts for the fact that a female may lay a second clutch as well (laying 11-83 eggs in total in a breeding season). An interesting fact about the hatching snappers is that the little ones make a noise before they dig themselves out of the earth. To us, these sounds mimic clicks, creaks or what sounds like someone rubbing their finger over a fine-toothed comb.

The snapping turtles’ diet comprises quite a lot of vegetation, carrion and small animals. The latter are swallowed whole or bitten into pieces — young ducklings in a pond with snappers need to stay alert to avoid being caught. The snappers who survive to adulthood may reach a considerable age if they live in an undisturbed area, e.g., up to some 40 years.

And now we finally get back to Sweet Tooth and Swayback in particular. I’ve had the good fortune to become familiar with this pair at a local pond alongside a public road where I’ve photographed wildlife for many years. It has been designated as a “hot spot” for local and other birders on eBird. As my friend Lucretia has said: “birders and nature lovers have always enjoyed the beauty of the pond and surrounding meadows and fields and the wildlife that lives there. It is a special place.” Unfortunately, it’s now uncertain what will be happening to Sweet Tooth’s and Swayback’s longtime home.

I had seen these turtles swimming around in the pond frequently and admired their size. I’m guessing they might be a few decades old.

Last fall when a persimmon tree at the edge of the pond began dropping its ripe fruit, I was surprised to see one of the turtles up on the surrounding lawn on a rainy day— s/he saw me and quickly trundled off to the water’s edge.

On subsequent visits, I approached carefully and not too closely. By moving only a few steps to get in position for some photos and then standing still (although I did talk to the turtle, I admit), the animal decided to stay put. The temptation to eat some of the ripe persimmons was just too great and helped him/her overcome any fears.

I was very surprised as I had no idea that snapping turtles are fond of this fruit. On subsequent visits to the pond, however, I learned that it must be a real delicacy for them. This turtle seemed to recognize me after a few visits and didn’t hurry away. When Lucretia visited, Sweet Tooth (a name we decided to use for him/her) also stayed put.

Sweet Tooth is a bit of a messy eater, but then s/he doesn’t have teeth or any way to get the dripping persimmon flesh off her/his chin.

One day, I was surprised to see that Sweet Tooth had been joined by a companion, whom I called Swayback. I don’t know if this turtle had been injured at some point to cause the dent in its carapace.

Swayback didn’t seem quite as enamored with the persimmons as Sweet Tooth but did seem to enjoy eating some fruit from time to time.

Recently, the property on which the pond is located was sold. I’ve been told by people who pass by daily that the pond may be dredged and deepened so that it can be used for irrigation. Much of the surrounding vegetation, which made it a delightful spot with many hiding and perching places for migrating and resident birds was bulldozed.

I and others are worried about what could happen to the pond’s inhabitants. We hope that Sweet Tooth, Swayback and any other wildlife who call the pond home can be rescued, rehabbed if necessary, and eventually returned to their longtime home. Keep your fingers crossed along with me that we might enjoy seeing this pair of snappers relishing persimmon treats in the future!

One last note: if you want to rescue a snapper from a busy road, only pick it up at the back of its carapace above the hind legs. If you have your hands any further forward, the turtle can use its long and flexible neck to reach you for a bite. You can also move it with a square shovel (be prepared for a heavy load) or by having it on a tarp or blanket to carry it along.