Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gibbon Falls

Another one of the waterfalls located in Yellowstone National Park is Gibbon Falls. Gibbon Falls is one of the most visited falls in Yellowstone because it is located right off of the southern Grand Loop Road, between Norris and Madison Junction.
Discovered in 1872 by members of the second Hayden survey group, the Gibbon Falls is located where the Gibbon River plunges 84 feet off of the northern escarpment down into the Yellowstone Caldera.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Snake River Birds of Prey Festival

For the past few years Michelle and I have added a couple of extra days to our vacation so that we could take a little side trip on our way to or from Yellowstone. This began in 2007 when we stopped at Medicine Lake NWR in Montana on our way home to photograph eared grebe in their breeding plumage. In 2008 we stopped back at Medicine Lake on our way to Yellowstone but that was the year when spring came late and since most of the snow in the mountains had not melted yet Medicine Lake was quite dry and there was not a lot of birds around. So we continued on and stopped at Bowdoin NWR in Montana instead.
This year we decided to go even further and visit the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area near Boise, ID. It was a little bit out of our way, we had to continue 5 to 6 hours past Yellowstone, but considering my interest in Raptors we thought that it was a good choice.
As luck would have it I found out that the inaugural Snake River Birds of Prey Festival was being held at the same time that we would be in the area, so we registered for the festival. This festival was set up a little different then most birding festivals that I have attended. It had a low registration fee that got you into the event and then most of the workshop/field trips had an additional cost. This worked out well for us since we were only going to be around for Saturday and part of Sunday. So I looked at the field trips, that were available for Saturday, and two looked very interesting. One was an all day trip banding ferruginous hawk and western screech owl chicks. This would have been really interesting for me but it was not really something that I thought Michelle would be interested in and I could not leave here at the hotel by herself the whole day so I decided to go with the other option. This was a couple hour field trip to see burrowing owls. I know Michelle likes owls a lot and since it was only a couple of hours I thought that this field trip was perfect so I registered us for it.
So on Thursday Morning we took off and drove all day, around 13 hours, until we got to Billing, MT where we spent the night. The next morning we got up and started the long drive to Meridian, ID, where we were staying for the festival. We arrived around 6:00pm so we decided to check out Snake River for a couple of hours until it got dark. The first raptor that we found was a burrowing owl on a stick in a field not far off of the road. The next morning we had a couple of hours to kill before our program began so we headed down to the same area and we were able to locate numerous burrowing owls.
Even though we already had quite a few very nice burrowing owl pics we decided to head over to the elementary school where the festival was being held to participate in the program that we registered for. The leader of our program was a graduate student at Boise State University who was doing his thesis on the effects of pesticides on burrowing owls. After a short lecture he took us out to see some burrowing owls. In the festival brochure it said that part of the workshop would be to see burrowing owls at their burrow. I believed that this meant we would be sitting with our scopes looking at holes in the ground, boy was I wrong.
Our program leader took us out to the same area where Michelle and I had been photographing the burrowing owls. As part of his study he had placed numerous man made burrows in the area in hopes of attracting the burrowing owls so that they could be studied. The burrows consisted of a large bucket with a hose attached that was buried under the dirt. At least several of these burrows were occupied and as part of the field trip we got the unique experience of peeking into these man made burrows.
At the first burrow that we looked into the chicks were about 5 days old. As you can see they were covered in down feathers and their eyes were still not open. The little gold spot on their beaks is their egg tooth. This is what the birds use to break out of the shell when they hatch.
The next den that we visited had chicks that were about 15 days old. These chicks were a lot more developed. Much of their down had been replaced by feathers and their egg tooth had fallen off. By this time their eyes were wide open which made them much more aware of the large predators invading their burrow.
As a defense mechanism burrowing owl chick will make a hissing noise when they feel threatened. This hissing will often fool a predator, who may be entering the burrow, into believing that it is a rattlesnake hole. It was difficult to hear the 5 day old chicks hiss but these guys were really loud. Eventually they calmed down and members of the field trip were able to hold them.
When all of the chicks were out of the burrow we noticed that one chick was walking kind of funny. When we looked we noticed that it had a piece, tail and back leg, of a mouse in its talon. At first we thought that it was holding the food but on closer examination we found that it had somehow got the piece of mouse stuck around its foot. Our leader was afraid that this might affect his growth so he very carefully removed the excess from the babies foot.
This burrow had another occupant besides the chicks. When we opened up the bucket the female burrowing owl who was also in the burrow went back up the hose to escape. However prior to opening the burrow our leader had stuffed a cloth into the mouth of the tunnel to prevent anything from exiting that way. Once all of the chicks were out of the way he took a plumbers snake, with a lot of duct tape on the end, and used it to force her down into the bucket where he could grab here.
As you can see she was not very happy about the situation. A few of us on the field trip were concerned that our intrusion into their burrow might have a negative effect on the birds. We were assured that what we had witnessed was the normal routine for this project and the birds seem to recover well from the stress of the situation. I was grateful to find out that the experience was probably having only a negligible effect on the birds. The effect on Michelle and I was much different. This was an experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Viceroy Butterfly on Philadelphia Fleabane

It is not often that I get to cover two different memes with one post, let alone one pic, but I wanted to start posting to the Macro Monday meme since I do quite a bit of macro photography. In the future I will try and get Today's Flowers posted earlier but since I was off shooting all day I decided to combine them for this week.
At first glance you may think that this is a monarch butterfly sitting on a Philadelphia Fleabane flower but it is in fact a poser. The viceroy has very little in common with the monarch butterfly other then its coloration. The coloration is a type of camouflage. It makes it look like a monarch, which are toxic due to the milkweed that the monarch caterpillar eats, and thus they are typically avoided by most predators.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Western Kingbird

When we were in Idaho one bird that we saw quite a bit of was the western kingbird. Western kingbirds can be found in the western portion of Minnesota and sometimes we see one around the Twin Cities but that is a pretty rare occurrence.
Like its cousin, the eastern kingbird, the western kingbird is a type of flycatcher. They eat mainly insects which they catch on the fly. They prefer open habitat, where they can hunt for insects, but require some trees bushes or man-made structures where they can perch and ambush their prey.
The range of the western kingbird has continually been expanding eastward over the past century, and now includes most of the US west of the Mississippi River. This has put them in conflict with eastern kingbirds. Both eastern and western kingbirds are fiercely territorial against other kingbirds, especially when nesting. The range of the western kingbird has expanded so greatly that you can now find western kingbirds wintering in southern Florida.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Burrowing Owl

Here are the last of the burrowing owl pics that I took last August while I was on a shorebird workshop in South Dakota.
Burrowing owls prefer to live in an open field habitat. Since they are ground nesters this aids them in spotting predators from far enough away to make an escape.

If you would like to see more burrowing owl pics check out the Ecobirder group on Facebook. During our Yellowstone trip we stopped out in Idaho and took some burrowing owl pics, including pics of 5 day old chicks. I will be posting some pics from Idaho in the future but I posted a couple of pics, including a pic of 3 5 day old chicks, as a preview on the Facebook page. The Facebook has open enrolment so feel free to join the group if you would like. I have left it pretty open so that members can post pics or links if they want to as long as they are appropriate, I will remove anything that I feel does not belong. To get to the page you can click here or on the link in the sidebar.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sky Watch: Yellowstone Sky

Running around Yellowstone is one of my favorite things in the world to do but it can also be very tiring. I am not the kind of person that you find out jogging or at the gym, but I do spend a lot of time hiking around in parks between April to December. This, and the low carb diet that I maintain due to the diabetes, keeps me in reasonable shape.
However when I am hiking around Yellowstone I feel like I am old and completely out of shape, gasping for breath on even a short walk. I really can not be too hard on myself though, because coming from Minnesota, where the elevation is pretty close to sea level, it is hard to get use to the thin oxygen of Yellowstone which is at 7000 feet above sea level or higher. The good thing is that when I return from Yellowstone the hiking around home seems so much easier.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Yellowstone Lake

Even though it was already mid to late May when we visited Yellowstone National Park, Yellowstone Lake was still mostly frozen over. There was open water along most of the shoreline but the middle still had a ways to go to thaw out. Last year when we visited in May even less had thawed.
However the waters at the shore near the West Thumb Geyser Basin are often open even during the winter. Hot water that pours from the geysers and pools mixes with the water of the lake and keeps it from freezing up. It is even possible to see river otters swimming in the open waters during the winter.

Monday, June 22, 2009

My World: Artists Paint Pot

Typically we travel to Yellowstone each year for the abundance of wildlife that can be found there. However the wildlife is not the reason why Yellowstone was set aside as the worlds first national park. It is its geology that makes Yellowstone unique.
Many people have heard of Old Faithful before but Yellowstone is filled with many geological areas. Catastrophic volcanic eruptions that happened 2 million, 1.2 million and 600,000 years ago have left a landscape filled with geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots.
The last volcanic eruption, 600,000 years ago, happened in the middle of what is now Yellowstone. After erupting the volcano collapsed forming a 28 x 47 mile caldera, or basin. On the west side of the caldera close to midway between the Upper and the Norris Geyser Basin sits the Artist Paint Pots.
The Artist Paint Pots are named for the mud pots which are found in the area. Mud pots are hot springs with a limited water supply. Hydrogen sulfide gas rises up through these springs from deep inside the earth. Microorganisms living in the spring use this gas as a source of energy. In the process the gas is converted into sulfuric acid which breaks down the surrounding rocks and converts it to clay.
The clay is composed of minerals and fine particles of silica. Most of the rock in the area is rhyolite, which is chiefly composed of feldspar and quartz, which breaks up into the clay mineral kaolinite. The Crow tribe that lived in the area many years ago used this kaolinite clay to paint their tipis which is why the mud pots are called the Artists of Fountain Paint Pots.
The density or thickness of the mud is dependent on the season. In spring and early summer the mud is usually thin as it mixes with water from the spring rains and the snow melt. As summer progresses and the amount of rainfall lessens the mud begins to thicken. By late summer and fall the mud is typically quite thick which allows for flying mud as gas bubbles push through. Besides the mud pots there are other volcanic feature in the area. There are geysers, like Twig, Fountain, Morning and Clepsydra, none of which were erupting while I was there. There are also fumaroles and hot springs like Celestine Spring pictured above.
Red Spouter is a pool during the spring and early summer but during the dry season it loses its water and becomes a hissing fumarole. There is also leather pool which is named for the brown bacteria which grow in its waters.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Red Columbine

Red columbine, or wild columbine, is a native wildflower here in Minnesota. The flower is usually red, although sometimes it can be more pink, and is bell shaped. I took this pic at the Necedah NWR in central Wisconsin.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Whooping Cranes

Here are some more pics of the two whooping cranes that I photographed flying over Necedah, NWR last October. The whooping crane, or whooper as it is frequently called, is found only in North America. It is the tallest bird in North America standing at almost 5 feet tall with a wingspan of over seven feet.
They got their name from the whooping call that the cranes make during the courtship process. Whoopers are ground nesters. They typically nest in marshy areas in around 10 inches of water to help prevent attacks from ground predators like fox and coyote. The nest is usually hidden in stands of bulrush or cattail. When they are born the young whoopers are flightless but can swim away from danger if necessary.
Due to habitat loss and hunting the whooping crane was brought to the brink of extinction. In 1941 there were only 15 wild whoopers left in North America. The whooper was put on the endangered species list and there are now several organizations that are working with the government to help increase the population of these birds.
Currently the wild whooper population stands at around 325. The bulk of the birds are the ancestors of the last flock of 15. They nest up in Wood Buffalo National Park, in Canada, and winter in Aransas NWR in southeast Texas. To try and prevent the complete loss of the whooper population, if something catastrophic where to happen to the remaining wild flock, a second flock was created using captive born birds. These birds are raised in Wisconsin, mostly Necedah, and using ultra light aircraft the bird are lead down to south Florida during migration. After their first migration the birds find their own way back north so that they can migrate on their own after that. This eastern migratory flock currently has around 80 birds. Both flocks have been growing around an average of about 4% each year.