Yellowstone National Park, Part 1. Wonders and delight

Yellowstone National Park (YNP), which is located mostly in Wyoming but also in Montana and Idaho, became the USA’s first national park on 1 March 1872. This year, the National Park Service was gearing up to celebrate Yellowstone’s 150th “birthday” and many visitors were expected.

Unfortunately, in June, storms led to catastrophic flooding of the park. Historic water levels caused mud and rock slides, leading to large-scale destruction of park infrastructure. Many road sections were destroyed and the town of Gardiner, at the North entrance, was devastated just as residents were welcoming the first summer visitors. Fortunately, significant progress has been made by the National Park Service throughout the summer and fall and entry into the park through the North and Northeast Entrance roads was restored in late 2022.

Wikimedia. Yellowstone flood event 2022- North Entrance Road washout. NPS/Jacob W. Frank

In late May, just before this episode of climatic devastation occurred, I had the very good fortune to travel through Yellowstone with my good friend, Joan. I’d visited YNP before, but this was my most enjoyable journey so far. I’d now like to share with you some of the sights we were privileged to see in a series of blogs (sometimes interspersed with some North Carolina wildlife sightings).

Yellowstone, which has a name based on an Indian word, is an area full of wonders and delight. You find yourself traveling through a large volcanic caldera — an immense depression left in the earth after a volcano erupts and then collapses in on itself. You are also in an area with the largest high-elevation lake in North America, a 670-mile waterway which is the longest free-flowing river in the Continental USA, and a spot where you are half-way between the equator and the North Pole. This area has had human occupants for at least 11,000 years according to archeological findings at nearly 2000 documented sites. Tragically, the settlers of European backgrounds and US authorities did all they could to drive the American Indian occupants away. Starting in 1886, when the US Army managed the Park, the US Cavalry patrolled it for 32 years to prevent the 27 modern-day associated tribes from hunting and gathering there. Finally, today, the Indian occupants are being rightfully acknowledged and highlighted in YNP educational and informational materials.In 1926, George LaVatta, Organizational Field Agent, led a group of Indians in costume into YNP. Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

To start off the blog series, I’ll introduce you to the place where Joan and I stayed: Gardiner, Montana, a town of only some 800-900 residents. The town comprises mostly hotels, shops and eateries. During the COVID pandemic, a couple restaurants burned down and were not replaced. We were there during the week before high season began and only a few of the remaining restaurants were open.

Neither Joan nor I were impressed with the cuisine on offer, so we began getting take-out at the local Gardiner market, a store with a nice broad selection of foodstuffs, some souvenirs and friendly staff who still served customers during a power outage.

While tourist season hadn’t begun, locals did show artwork and signs welcoming visitors.

                           

It was fairly easy to find places as there is only one main road with a limited number of side streets. A couple churches are prominent on the main drag, and one usually has some elk and/or or mule deer occupying space on their grounds.

Look well: there is an elk sheltering under the roof overhang.

  

There were warning signs here and there, reminding us of precautions for COVID and maintaining distance from wildlife, but this was disregarded in town.

   

Having walked through the backstreets to photograph birds, I can attest to the fact that it is not uncommon to turn around and find a deer or elk a couple feet behind you or moving just in front of you.

The Gardiner Catholic priest does attempt to prevent humans from taking up parking space.

A few of the houses along the main road had made some attempts at gardening, protecting plants from browsing mammals and being imaginative with rocks.

  

 

A little lending library was a nice touch, too.

As is the case in the Park proper, a great deal of care is given to avoiding trash on the ground. In 1970, open-pit garbage dumps were abolished in YNP, along with the nightly “bear shows” where visitors sitting on wooden bleachers watched bears eat garbage!

The local people do care about what is happening in the area and made this clear with signs.

     

In the park itself, visitors are warned not to move things around, like this geodetic marker.

$250 fine or imprisonment for disturbing this mark.

Our motel manager was friendly and told us about how the pandemic had made business difficult. In the past, many younger and retired people came to Gardiner and YNP to work in the motels, gift shops and other venues during the high season. I met some nice retired folks and students who had come for this reason (note the traveling home that someone had brought along).  The manager mentioned that there were now far fewer workers, however, and she and her son had been helping clean the motel rooms due to staff shortages.

When entry into YNP through the famous Roosevelt Arch was closed because of the June flooding, Gardiner took another post-pandemic blow. Hopefully, the town residents have been able to recover and can look forward to seeing more business in the seasons to come.

Next up: Visiting our first group of thermal features.

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:

Sunflower fields as critter-friendly habitats — part 1: birds and butterflies

Last month, many residents of the county where I live were alerted to the eruption of profusely blooming sunflowers that were attracting both birds and people. The avians were looking for tasty seeds, as well as bugs attracted to the blooms, and the humans were seeking beauty and backdrops for photo portraits.

 

Sunflower fields are so popular in our area that they feature on the TV news and in online tourism guides. The NC Museum of Art has sunflower fields and offered a sold-out Sunflower Photography Workshop.

Many birds love sunflower seeds, but it can be difficult to see the foragers as they may be dining at blooms lower down on stems. The bright blue indigo buntings are sometimes easy to spot but I couldn’t get photos of them feeding. Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) will often perch atop a bloom to peck away at the ripening seeds.

   

Other birds were active in the vicinity of the fields, but I didn’t see them at the flowers. For example, the Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens) stayed in the vicinity of a nearby pond while I visited.

The Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) flitted about in nearby meadows. I didn’t see them among the sunflowers.

It’s not only the birds and people that like sunflowers, however. A field of these flowers is a boon for pollinators. The Orange County fields that I visited featured hundreds of butterflies. The most numerous were the orange sulphurs (Colias eurytheme).

As I watched, pairs of sulphurs would often flutter around one another, ascending high up in the air. It was interesting to see that two types of female orange sulphurs were present. Some were yellow-hued like the males; others were whitish in color, known as the Alba variant.

These sulphurs are also known as alfalfa butterflies and the larva is sometimes called the alfalfa caterpillar. An interesting fact about these sulphurs is that the males’ hind wings have an ultraviolet light reflectance pattern, while the females’ hind wings have an ultraviolet absorbing pattern so that they can be distinguished in flight.

Another abundantly present butterfly species were the cabbage whites (Pieris rapae), which were accidentally introduced into North America around 1860. They didn’t seem attracted to the sunflowers per se but instead were fluttering around and landing on the other flowering plants mixed in with them.

Of these small butterflies had me stumped for an ID at first; it was yellowish in color and didn’t have prominent black spots. However, an entomology expert on BugGuide assured me that it was a cabbage white.

Various types of skipper butterflies were feeding on the sunflowers.

There were a few variegated fritillaries (Euptoieta claudia) visiting the sunflowers and an occasional black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) fluttered into view as well.

Both the cabbage whites and orange sulphurs were visiting muddy spots at a nearby pond.

This behavior is known both as mudding and mud-puddling and occurs when the butterflies are looking for certain nutrients in mud and rotting plant matter.

Observations have indicated that most of the puddling butterflies are males who often appear to be ingesting salts and amino acids. These substances seem to improve the males’ reproductive success and they transfer these compounds to females when they mate. The nutrients then contribute to the survival of the deposited eggs. Wouldn’t it be interesting if human males could transfer nutritional benefits to offspring in that way?

A latecomer to the puddling parties was a lone common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia Hübner). This species generates several generations of offspring each summer and I’m always pleased to see them in my own yard.

Next blog: the sunflower field visit continues with some other numerous visitors!

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: