Yellowstone National Park: Part 4. An unplanned and unexpected encounter!

As my friend Joan and I traveled through Yellowstone, we saw bison everywhere, in herds, small groups and sometimes in pairs or alone. Quite often this was on the road, so that we needed to be aware it might take us longer than planned to get to a particular place.

The many reports of human-bison encounters which I had seen and read about over the years made me quite aware of how dangerous it can be for a person to come close to a bison. They are huge animals – adults weighing between 1,200-2,000 pounds and standing 4-6 feet tall. If provoked or alarmed, they can be quite dangerous.

I was not above making derogatory comments about how thoughtless people took risks when they approached bison. For example, one day we stopped along a road and watched bison crossing the Yellowstone River, swimming with difficulty against the rapid currents.

Some park visitors had stopped down the road and a couple got out and descended into the valley, headed for the river. They apparently were hoping to get some close-up photos and I made some disparaging remarks about how they were taking unnecessary risks and should turn around.

A few days later, however, I discovered that not all encounters are the result of thoughtlessness.

Joan and I had stopped at a valley overlook where Park authorities had laid out a walking trail. It was a good distance from any hills and several people were out hiking the trail. As we both like to walk, we decided to go down to the trail as well.

As Joan walks faster than me and because I stop often to photograph, she went on ahead. I meandered along taking photos of plants, birds and what I thought were prairie dogs, but which were likely Uinta ground squirrels. There were some bison far down the valley, but they were mostly heading up into the hills, so we felt ok walking on the trail.

After a while, I was nearing the river and wanted to photograph some green-winged teal. As I approached their spot, Joan came walking back to my surprise. I’d thought she would go on for a while, but she said some people ahead of her were following the trail as it ascended a hill, and they were not that far from some bison. She didn’t want to be around any mammal-people encounters so she decided to return. I said I’d come back when I had photographed the ducks.

The sun was shining nicely and the teal were swimming back and forth. I checked my vicinity and saw no people or animals; the rodents had gone into their dens.

As I stood taking pictures, I suddenly heard a soft sound behind me, kind of like a grunt or snort. I slowly turned right with my camera still held up to my face and found myself facing a small group of bison with the lead male watching me from some yards away.

This is not the bison that faced me: I was not taking photos or making any noise at this point!

Joan had been watching from above the valley at the parking place along with a couple other people. She’d seen the bison come up over a hill and walk toward me, but she was too far away to let me know. I never heard them – or smelled them as the wind was blowing in their direction.

Not the bison who was examining me!

Joan considered calling 911 but phone coverage can be spotty. She also briefly thought about how to get medical help if something happened but hoped a ranger would come quickly as they did seem to magically appear all over the park when needed. We saw them often when groups of people stopped at roadsides.

Again – not the bison who was examining me!

In the meantime, I quickly considered my options. I can’t run; even if I could, it would be useless as bison have been clocked at 40-45 mph (65-70 km/h). I knew enough not to challenge the bison in any way, quickly looking away so I wasn’t gazing into the male leader’s eyes. I kept the camera with its long lens up in front of my face. Slowly, I pivoted back left towards the direction of the river, facing away from the bison. Then I stood completely motionless (camera still up in front of my face). I don’t know how long I stood there but at some point, I heard movement further away to my right and dared a look. The bison leader and his group had decided that I posed no threat and they had moved on down the valley.

I waited, still standing stock still, until they were a good distance away. I had to take a couple photos of the – now far off – group and then began walking as quickly as I could manage down the return path.

Photo heavily cropped; they were very distant!

My feelings were mixed: shock at what had happened, relief that I had known what to do in order not to provoke the bison, and elation that I had survived the close encounter unscathed. It also taught me that not all human-bison encounters are the result of complete stupidity – I was on a path laid out for visitors, there had been no bison nearby when we began walking, several other people had been on the trail and so I hadn’t suspected anything could happen. I likely won’t hike any paths at the park again if bison are in sight, even far away.

I continue to be in awe of the magnificent bison. I’m glad my love of wildlife and instincts helped me through a safe encounter and this will certainly be one of my most vivid travel memories. And I’ll continue to be as careful and watchful as I can when I go out into nature.

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!

Adorable anoles — lizards with moods!

Hello, readers — it’s been a while! Time seems to be passing ever faster for me with each new year of life. I was surprised to realize that it’s been a couple months since I posted a blog. So here is a column that I just submitted to a local newspaper with a few more photos than the paper could accommodate.

One of my favorite local reptiles is the Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis). These cute lizards can be seen year-round since they don’t hibernate. In my experience, however, they seem to be more active — or at least viewable — in late summer and early autumn.

Also known as green anoles, they are the only anoles native to the southeastern United States. Green is nevertheless not their only color. You may encounter dark brown, light brown and green/brown anoles and they might even change their coloring as you watch them.

Unlike chameleons, who change color to blend in with their surroundings so that they can hide more easily from predators, anoles mainly change their skin hues in response to stress or their mood, when they are active or when they want to defend a territory. Darker colors may indicate that they are feeling cold or stressed out.

Sometimes when I’ve watched individuals at length, it’s seemed to me as if they were expressing a variety of moods, even if they didn’t change color.

  

 

Full-grown males are larger than females, but you can also guess their sex based on anatomical features. When males hope to attract a female for mating, they display a brightly colored reddish flap underneath their jaws called a dewlap. When a female sees it, this may induce her to ovulate. Males also show their dewlaps when defending territory against other males.

   

Female anoles can often be distinguished by a row of white markings along their spine, which most males lack.

Like other lizards, anoles regularly shed their skin. Observation last year taught me that they may also eat that skin since this provides them with extra nutrients that may be lacking in their direct environment.

 

Their regular diet is varied, including flies, beetles, spiders, cockroaches, worms, ants, termites, moths and butterflies. Seeds and grains can form part of their meals as well.

    

Carolina anoles are known as arboreal lizards because they spend a lot of time in trees and shrubs. From a higher perch, they can survey their surroundings. Climbing up shrubs and trees can also help them escape from predators who cannot follow them because they lack the sticky foot pads that enable anoles to ascend vertically. Other predators, such as tree snakes and larger lizards, can catch them if they are quick.

 

Sometimes, a predator may catch a green anole by the tail and the anole escapes by dropping its tail—a defensive behavior known as caudal autotomy. A new tail will grow but will be weaker as it contains cartilage instead of bone and often will not be as long.

 

Recently, I learned that birds also hunt anoles when I photographed a blue jay who had caught one. Other birds in our area who go after them include kestrels and bluebirds.

 

The Carolina anoles usually live from about 2 to 8 years. A few who live around my front porch sometimes approach me closely and it’s noticeable that they are watching me, too.

  

Another one decided that an unused bluebird nest box was a good place to hide from predators, obviously not during birds’ nesting season!

It’s been so nice to see the anoles out and about the past weeks. Tonight, we’re having our first freeze of the 2022 autumn/winter season so the anoles may start seeking warm places to hang out. Hopefully, they will have found good places to over-winter.

Readers in the southeast USA who would like information on how to create habitats that can harbor anoles and other native reptiles and amphibians can check out this information site: Reptiles and Amphibians in Your Backyard.

  

My next blog will be the first of a series about Yellowstone National Park. I’d originally planned to post the series this past summer but then couldn’t find some photos I’d taken. The missing card “turned up,” so a photographic tour of the park before it flooded this past June will soon commence.

Have a great day!

Sunflower fields as critter-friendly habitats — part 2: bees and bugs

Do you know why the common name in English for Helianthus is sunflower? The common name is the same in Dutch (zonnebloem), German (Sonnenblume) and several other languages. In French (tournesol) and Spanish (girasol), the common names refer to “turning to the sun”, an accurate description of how this plant behaves.

Sunflowers exhibit a phenomenon known as heliotropism — an inclination to turn East in the morning so that the developing buds are warmed by the sun. The plant heads track the sun during the day and, at night, they reorient themselves to face East again. So if you pay attention when you visit a sunflower field at different times of day, you’ll notice they face a different direction in the morning and afternoon.

It’s not only birds, butterflies — and people! — that enjoy sunflowers. When these flowers grow in abundance, plenty of varied insects come to enjoy them and I’ll share something about these “sun worshippers” with you.

Bees of varying sizes were feeding in the sunflower fields that I visited. The large carpenter bees (Xylocopa) were not difficult to spot with their smooth shiny abdomens.

The similar-sized, fuzzy-looking bumble bees (Bombus) were actively visiting one sunflower after another.

American bumble bees (Bombus pensylvanicus) were foraging on nearby hibiscus blooms.

At a different site in neighboring Durham county, where sunflowers bloom later, I saw bumble bees on partridge peas and other yellow flowers.

 

There, too, my attention was caught by a bee that looked quite different from others that I’d seen. It proved to be a leafcutter bee (Megachilid), which has large mouthparts that enables it to cut pieces of leaves, plant resins and soil to line its nest.

The leafcutter bees are interesting in their unique method of carrying pollen. Rather than collect pollen in baskets called corbicula on their hind legs, they gather the substance in a clump of abdominal hairs called a scopa or pollen brush.

Back at the sunflower fields, I observed one medium-sized cuckoo bee (Epeolini) eventually become covered with sunflower pollen. These bees do not have an anatomical structure for carrying collected pollen and the females, like avian cuckoos (or cowbirds), lay their eggs in other bees’ nests.

The much smaller Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) were very numerous. It was interesting to discover that for some time, the NASA website included a section on honey bees! It stopped being updated when the principal investigator retired but NASA maintains the site because of the valued information it contains. Some of the interesting facts they listed about these insects:

  • Bees can fly about 20 mph (32 kph).
  • The highest recorded number of eggs laid by a queen was 2,000 per day!
  • Bees have been on our planet for about 30 million years!
  • To make 1 pound (0.45 kg) of honey, bees need to collect nectar from about 2 million flowers!!
  • The average foraging bee (all females) makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
  • The main way in which honey bees communicate among themselves is via chemicals called pheromones.

The honey bees and common Eastern bumble bees make a good choice by spending lots of time in sunflower fields. Scientific studies indicate that ingested sunflower pollen enables them to suffer less infection from two common parasites, a real boon for bees who might otherwise succumb to colony collapse as a result of disease.

 

Both in the sunflower and other fields, it was fascinating to see other types of small bees as well. The small green sweat bees perhaps prefer more colorful blooms as that is where I mostly saw them.

These tiny non-aggressive bees are attracted to sweat because it provides them with moisture and salts.

There were some other interesting insects besides butterflies and bees in the sunflower fields and surrounding vegetation. While looking at some bumble bees circling a large sunflower head, I had inadvertently photographed a pair of much tinier insects near the center of the flower. I actually only noticed them when I was looking at the photos at home or I would have tried to focus on them better in the field.

When I enlarged the photo, I was able to get a somewhat fuzzy look at them and BugGuide identified them for me as sunflower seed maggots (Neotephritis finalis). These tiny insects have prettily patterned wings, but I discovered there is not a lot of information available about them; some research in North Dakota in 2008 concluded they might be a pest but no other data were easily available. They are a species of fruit fly.

Another insect seen on the sunflowers that many people find distasteful were the green June beetles (Cotinis nitida). The larva can damage vegetable and other plant roots, while the adults will feed on ripening fruit, so many gardeners will try to get rid of them.

A cute little syrphid fly, which BugGuide couldn’t identify specifically (a Palpada species), seemed to be alone with no fellow flies nearby.

There were several slender meadow katydids (Conocephalus fasciatus) to admire with their extremely long antennae.

The most interesting fact I discovered about them is that they have a soft song comprising ticks and buzzes that alternate for time periods of 1–20 seconds.

Sunflower fields are beautiful and spending time observing them as interesting wildlife habitats can really be enjoyable. These flowers also constitute a beneficial cash crop for farmers who can sell the seeds for sunflower oil, for human and avian consumption and the stalks for cattle feed.

And as if all those benefits don’t make sunflowers enough of a value-laden plant, scientific studies have also shown that they assist in phytoremediation, a process that helps remove and destroy polluting contaminants in soil, water, and air. Their deep taproots help aerate soil and make it richer for growing other subsequent crops as well.

Some sunflower fields may still be blooming through August and an online search can help you find them if you’d like to enjoy these wonderful flowers and their wildlife beneficiaries. If you have a garden, you might consider adding sunflowers to your vegetation mix if you don’t have them already. You can still plant some now in hopes of late autumn blooms.

This is a good time also to remember that the Ukraine became the world’s leading exporter of sunflower seeds until the currently ongoing invasion of the country brought this trade to a halt. Farmers who were still able to grow the country’s national flower are stuck with supplies and no income. Consider supporting organizations that are working to provide the Ukrainian people with humanitarian aid: