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.

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!

Getting airborne when lift is lacking….

If you’ve had the good fortune to watch a bird caring for nestlings and then encouraging them to enter the big wide world, you might think that the young ones automatically know how to fly. But my recent observations of a ruby-throated hummingbird family (Archilochus colubris) showed me that a learning curve — albeit not a long one — may be involved.

On the 29th of April, my friend Ace and I had the good fortune to spot a female hummingbird. We discovered that she was gathering construction materials for a nest with inside walls that included plant down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was camouflaging the outside of the walls with lichen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As she worked on the nest, she sat in it periodically, moving her body to form the cup shape and tamp down the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

The walls expand as the eggs hatch and nestlings grow; this is possible because the walls are held together by spider web and caterpillar webbing (6 May).

If we hadn’t seen her working on the nest, we likely would not have seen it. It was very cleverly placed near the crook of a small branch that had lichen growing nearby (13 May).

I noticed a twig curving down from the branch beneath the nest and that became the marker for finding it again — not always an easy task as the hummer home blended in so very well with the tree she had chosen.

Just after mid-May, I had to stop my observations as I had the immensely good fortune to visit Yellowstone National Park (blogs on that coming up!). It was only on 4 June that I was able to visit the hummer nest again and it was a thrill to see two babies had emerged from the coffee bean-sized eggs.

During their first days, young hummingbirds are very vulnerable. They are blind for about 9 days and only begin to grow pin-like feathers after about 10 days!

Mom would come by and regurgitate food (insects and nectar) into their open mouths.

 

 

 

 

 

When the chicks grew enough to peer over the nest’s edge, we were able to watch them surveying their surroundings.

The two of them would look around in unison.

They moved around the nest more and more, jostling for space. By 3 weeks of age, ruby-throated hummingbirds are fully feathered and getting ready to fledge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 7 June, I had a premonition that fledging was going to occur that day. I had volunteer duty in the morning (to pull invasive plants at a local reserve) so I could only visit the nest briefly before going to work.

The babies were both flexing their wings a lot. Hummers typically flap their wings 50-200 times per second! It turned out that they needed to exercise a lot, or they weren’t going to be able to get the lift needed to leave the nest.

The nestlings flapped back and forth as they revved up their muscles for a coming take-off. Their pectoral muscles need to be strong for their airborne flights and may account for up to 30% of their body weight.

Watching with excitement as I maneuvered a bit to get better lighting for photos, I saw one of the little ones begin to lift (above). S/he flapped furiously. I got a photo of the lift off but not the actual departure from the nest.

One nestling remained and s/he began flapping vigorously.

I had to stop my vigil as it was time to get to the nature reserve. While leaving, I ran into Ace and told him that one hummer had just fledged, and the other was getting ready so that he could see the event!

After my 2-hour shift, I drove back to the nest. Ace had let me know that Chick No. 2 had not yet left while he was watching. Sure enough, when I returned the little one was still there (above).

He moved around a lot but didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed that Chick No. 2 was not getting the lift needed to soar up and away despite all its efforts.

Mom came to give some encouragement.

She also gave Chick No. 2 a bit of nourishment.

That seemed to provide the young one with renewed energy as the practice wing flapping resumed vigorously.

After a couple hours, I needed to leave to do other things. I took a few more photos of the hard-working almost-fledgling.

11

The next morning, I visited the hummer home again wondering whether anyone would still be in residence. The nest was empty so Chick No. 2 had departed the previous afternoon or evening. But as I watched, a hummer was zipping around the tree and the nest.

I think it was Mom. She may have been considering whether the nest could serve as a spot to raise another brood. It might also have been one of the young ones returning for a last look at home.

Observing the hummingbird nest over a period of weeks was a wonderful learning experience. I’ll treasure the memory for a long time to come. And I now have an even greater appreciation for these tiny birds that become flying gems in our natural surroundings.

Love me some hawks

3 red-tailed hawk PB074118© Maria de Bruyn res

After focusing mostly on the genus accipiter hawks in my last blog (especially the Cooper’s), I’d like to share a few more photos of buteo hawks that are common where I live. Taken over the past 4 years or so, the photos will vary and show them in various seasons.

The buteos are larger birds than the accipiters and somehow seem a bit more relaxed to me than the feisty accipiters.

1 red-tailed hawk P9199892 © Maria de Bruyn res

The red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis, above) are beauties as adults with dark red tail feathers. I tend to see them most often when I am away from home, visiting fields and natural areas. Frequently, I spot them when they are hunting. Their diets are rich and varied since they see almost any small animal as a potential meal. That includes rodents, rabbits, reptiles, fish, amphibians, invertebrates and other birds.

2 red-tailed hawk P9199889 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

 

Those dietary choices mean that I regularly see them being chased by other birds, especially in the spring when the other birds want to protect their nestlings from the predatory beaks of the red-tails. Crows especially can get very raucous and angry when red-tailed hawks are near their nests.

8 red-tailed hawk P4159552© Maria de Bruyn res

9 red-tailed hawk P4159557 © Maria de Bruyn res

 

The red-tailed hawk below was being chased away as s/he flew away with a squirrel.

11 red-tailed hawk P5134700© Maria de Bruyn res

There are 14 recognized sub-species of red-tailed hawks, which vary in color and range. In the area where I live, we have many Eastern red-tailed hawks, but last year I spotted another type flying over farmland. I asked experts from a raptor identification group for some assistance in describing it.

4 red-tailed hawk PB243087© Maria de Bruyn ed

One expert remarked: “This is a juvenile by the monochromatic brown tones, spotted bellyband and lack of dark terminal band on the wings….As a juvenile there is more overlap in phenotype than in adults, and often we cannot identify them to subspecies level.” She went on: “…this bird could be either a slightly heavier marked Eastern (borealis) or a Northern (abieticola). To me it is not heavily enough marked to be a slam dunk abieticola and I would probably not assign a subspecies to it.”

5 red-tailed hawk PB243137© Maria de Bruyn ed sgd

I asked if that meant that a Northern red-tailed hawk could be found in North Carolina and not just the Eastern sub-species, so I could start watching for those distinctions. She responded: “only in winter and probably not overly often that far south, but certainly worth keeping a look out for them.” I haven’t seen this hawk again to my knowledge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of my favorite portrait photos (below) is of a red-tailed hawk. Taken in 2015, the bird flew across a field to perch in a tree right next to the path on which I and four other people were walking. S/he had seen a hispid cotton rat crawl into the vegetation underneath the tree. My birding companions walked on but I stayed and after 20 minutes or so, the hawk suddenly dropped down and snagged the rat, which must have had a terrifying wait at the end of its life. The hawk was very handsome though.

13 Red-tailed hawk DK7A6468.© Maria de Bruyn res

While the red-tailed hawks are impressive, I have a softer spot for the red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus). Somehow they look less fierce and a bit sweeter to me.42 red-shouldered hawk P1280192© Maria de Bruyn res

I see them carrying out all kinds of behaviors. Sometimes, they are just flying overhead, showing off their red shoulders as they travel aloft.

14 red-shouldered hawk PC089000 © Maria de Bruyn res

They often perch high in trees to survey their territory.

15 red-shouldered hawk P2032292 © Maria de Bruyn

16 red-shouldered hawk PB148090© Maria de Bruyn sgd res

 17 red-shouldered hawk PB148081 © Maria de Bruyn res

18 red-shouldered hawk P4256997© Maria de Bruyn res     19 red-shouldered hawk P4256970 © Maria de Bruyn res

Tree tops often serve as a place to cuddle up when it is cold.

20 red-shouldered hawk P1128630© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

21 red-shouldered hawk P1128629 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

They seem to enjoy preening when high up on snags at all times of year.

23 red-shouldered hawk PB043026 © Maria de Bruyn res

22 red-shouldered hawk PB043004 © Maria de Bruyn res

24 red-shouldered hawk PC103338© Maria de Bruyn res

A snag can be a place to call out to mates.

25 red-shouldered hawk PA074393© Maria de Bruyn res

 

And a level branch is a good place to mate.

26 red-shouldered hawk P3118052© Maria de Bruyn

Sitting very still, they scan the ground to spot prey, which they often capture by dropping straight down to kill it in a fast strike. Their diet is varied, including many types of rodents and mammals such as squirrels, mice, chipmunks, voles. They also attack birds up to the size of jays, grouse or pheasants.

28A red-shouldered hawk PC204514 © Maria de Bruyn

 

When I’ve seen them snag prey, it has usually been smaller prey such as frogs, lizards, snakes and other reptiles and amphibians. A pair of red-shouldered hawks living at an urban park in a nearby city must really enjoy the crayfish that are abundant in the wetlands.

28 red-shouldered hawk PC204381 © Maria de Bruyn res

These hawks will perch on many handy lookout posts when surveying the ground for prey. This one sat on a feeder at the local public library, suddenly flew a short way to drop down into the leaves and brush under nearby trees and seemed to be wrestling with a rodent of some kind. S/he left without the prey, however.

29 red-shouldered hawk P1300684© Maria de Bruyn. res

30 Red-shouldered hawk P1300812 © Maria de Bruyn res

 31 red-shouldered hawk P1300816 © Maria de Bruyn res

In my yard, a resident red-shouldered hawk not only sits on branches but occasionally on a nest box, to the dismay of nearby songbirds. One ate all the large green frogs in my pond.

32 red-shouldered hawk P4257137 © Maria de Bruyn res

At a small public park in a neighboring town, I watched a red-shouldered scan the field below intently for quite some time. The raptor then surprised me by dropping swiftly down, snagging something small and flying up to another tree to eat.

33 red-shouldered hawk P4106575 © Maria de Bruyn res

It wasn’t until I enlarged the photos I took that I saw the bird had gotten a large worm. (When I posted the photo on facebook, a witty commentator remarked that he was collecting bait to go fishing!)

34 red-shouldered hawk P4106576© Maria de Bruyn (2)

35 red-shouldered hawk PB180186© Maria de Bruyn (2)

Occasionally, they may be injured. This young hawk was perched in an out-of-the-way spot in a park and when I posted these photos, a commentator remarked that the bird looked injured with a wing out of place. She suggested I contact a rehabilitator but the bird eventually flew away seeming to be ok.

 

36 red-shouldered hawk PB180215© Maria de Bruyn res

37 red-shouldered hawk PB180192 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While I know these raptors can be just as fierce as the other hawks, I do tend to think of the red-shouldered hawks as having sweet faces. Having watched them tend to their young, I know they can be very devoted parents and I always enjoy seeing them!

43 red-shouldered hawk P1280223© Maria de Bruyn res

Final note: “I love me some hawks” is not a title I would have chosen some years ago, but I liked it for this blog as it indicates —to me —enjoyment of something. I decided to look up where the phrase came from and ended up with several explanations: 1) an ungrammatical expression that might be associated with African American vernacular or with the rural areas of the southern US states; 2) an annoying phrase usually used by the middle-class; 3) a slang way of saying ‘I really love’; 4) a novel grammatical structure indicating “I always like” something. Kinda like the middle voice in ancient Greek. Well….at least I learned something new today. 😊

39 red-shouldered hawk PC100502© Maria de Bruyn (2)

Next blog – no birds but interesting creatures nonetheless!