Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Winter Arrives, with Shirts

Apparently all it took for winter to explode all over the country was for February 29th to get here. There has been good snow back in Duluth and in upstate New York, and it has been snowing all day here in Mammoth following up on the windy snowy storm we had Saturday.

Other than that, I've got nothing for you, and since today was the first of six days in a row I'll be working, I won't have anything new for a while. But I'm looking forward to playing in the snow next Tuesday and Wednesday when I'm off and the tourists are gone for the season. There were more wolf sightings here this morning, and I heard reports of bear tracks twenty miles east of here.

So, in my nature deprivation, I'm reduced to taking photos of two new shirts I picked up today. First is the back view of our winter staff t-shirts. I love the design and message.

And I also picked up my Jeopardy shirt today. Here's the back view, shared by all the winners of various sports and contests. From behind, you might think I'm a studly athlete.

On the front, my brain on drugs.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bird Sense: How Birds Perceive the World

It's been a long time since I've posted a book review here, for the simple reason that it's been a long time since I've read a good nature themed book. Finally, that's changed, so here's my Amazon Vine review of Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead.

The second part of my title comes the book's preface as a description of what the book is about. It would have made a more accurate subtitle as well; the actual subtitle "What It's Like to Be a Bird" comes from a similarly titled philosophical essay about bats but the preface explains that the book will take a much more pragmatic approach than that essay did.

This is much more a book of science than philosophy, with anatomical descriptions of eyes, ears, beaks, etc. These descriptions are given as an entry point to explaining how a bird experiences the world--sometimes like humans, sometimes very differently. Results of experiments (some, such as cutting out eyes and severing nerves, brutal enough to be called animal abuse) over the years are also given as further explanations of how birds interact with the world. Observations from the field are also included.

In addition to chapters on the five senses you'd expect, there are also chapters on magnetic sense and emotions. As some examples, the chapter on seeing explains how birds such as raptors have two foveas in their eyes which explains their excellent vision, the hearing chapter discusses the very asymmetrical positioning of owl ears, touch includes discussion of nerves both in beaks and brood patches, taste includes not only taste buds but some birds whose feathers taste terrible, smell includes vultures and seabirds among others, and magnetic sense of course discusses migration.

Due to my own opinions, the chapter on emotions was the one I was most interested in. This chapter explains how some scientists' approaches and beliefs about consciousness and feelings in other species have changed over the years, and gives some examples from nature which may or may not demonstrate emotions in birds. The author acknowledges that this will be very difficult to prove, but does believe that birds experience emotion.

One of the main points of the book is that there are both similarities and differences in how humans and other species perceive the world. All have different abilities, and other species can not be judged based on whether they experience the world in the same way humans do. Science has gradually come to realize this, and with the realization has come more creative approaches and much wider knowledge.

The book includes a large section of notes, bibliography, glossary, and index.

Friday, February 24, 2012

No Nature for You, Kid

We've all been aware that most adults and children are losing their connection with nature. From increasing urban populations to loss of natural areas to fear of letting children out of sight to more time in the electronic and virtual world to popular books on the subject, this comes as no surprise. Here's the latest--a study which even shows a decrease of nature illustrations in children's books.

This time, I'm not bucking the trend--I've got nothing nature-related for you either. I haven't gotten out for a good walk in a week. We've gradually been accumulating snow, and have a decent amount of ground cover now. From what I've been told, late winter is when the most snow falls here, but I'm not expecting a major storm this year. I hope I'm wrong.

Both the hotel and the employee recreation program will be shutting down soon until May. Most people will be leaving in less than two weeks, including one who has caused me to be more sociable than I have in a long time. I expect the lower population and increased solitude will get me out hiking or snowshoeing more.

On the other hand, books have been flowing in so I'll need to spend more time reading--Amazon's Vine program now has another newsletter which allows me to take more free books, and I've signed up for several publishing industry newsletters which also do giveaways. And at last, a couple of the books which I've been offered are about nature. I'm finishing up Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird by Tim Birkhead, and on its way is Bernd Heinrich's Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death.

Finally, I'll brag a bit here, though just yesterday I told someone I didn't like to brag after she said to me, "You didn't tell us . . . " So I'll tell you. Long ago, I went to Atlantic City to try to get on Jeopardy and failed. Earlier this week, the rec department had a Yellowstone Jeopardy evening where all the subjects were Yellowstone-related. I am the champion. Cue Queen.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Our wifi connection has been down for a couple days. Though it's fun to be back, it also felt wonderful to lounge in bed this morning watching the sky lighten instead of connecting to the electronic world. The following comes from a couple Wednesday hikes.

The howls of wolves had been sounding in the early daylight hours before I took a walk up the hill at 9:00. I was following the old dirt road, though now it was the old snow road after a few days and inches of snow. It was one of the few times in my life I've rooted against more snow because I'd been warned that a long-delayed and finally rescheduled beer might be snowed out in favor of skiing. So we plan again for next time.

I've heard the wolves often and nearby this winter, but nothing compared to their sound this morning as I hiked alone and out of sight of the human world. As their numerous calls echoed off the hills, it was difficult to be sure where the sound originated and I scanned the opposite mountainside with binoculars in search of movement. The wolves seemed to be getting louder, closer, and more excited.

And then, much closer than I expected, one grey wolf moved right to left descending along the ridgetop opposite me (the second steady slope in the photo above). I briefly considered using my camera but knew it would fail to photograph the moment closely enough, just as it has failed to record their howls earlier. I watched the wolf by eye and binoculars until s/he veered down a track heading toward me.

I felt this turn was coincidence not actually aimed at me, but no matter how many times I've read and intellectually believed that wolves do not attack humans, and despite having once stood face to face and paw to shoulder at an education center, I couldn't help feeling that I'd make an easy snack for hungry winter wolves and decided to move back up the road closer to home. I would happily have them devour my dead body, but I'm not quite ready to turn it over to them yet. I never truly felt threatened and didn't bother taking the bear spray out of my pack; this was simply a visceral reaction to the sound of the wolves (and sight of one) and my isolation.

Heading back to Mammoth, I spotted an elk herd I hadn't noticed earlier. Most of them were tightly bunched together, and as the wolves howled again, the two elk which had been some distance from the group moved back to rejoin them, playing it safe just like me. We all watched and listened.

I waited for further developments, eventually drifting back along the road to where I'd seen the wolf but I didn't spot any new movement. As no new howls came, some of the elk began lying down, and I headed down the hill.

After lunch, I took another walk around the hot springs.

My usual route after climbing the stairs and walking the boardwalks through that area is to walk the long loop of road around them back to Mammoth. Last time I tried it a bison was just next to the road and I decided to retrace my steps all the way back along the road and down the stairs instead. This time the bison was a little farther off the road and below my line of vision as I approached and I didn't spot him until I was across from him and closer than recommended. I passed him by without disturbing him for a photo, and instead took one of these elk against a distant mountain backdrop.

I found out a couple nights ago that two of my very favorite people (including the one who gave me the holiday bread a few posts ago) will be leaving Yellowstone. Both have worked here so long that I expected them to be part of the rest of my life here, and I feel pretty blue about the fact that they won't be. Looking at the bright side, at least they'll be here for a few more months before leaving for Minnesota and elsewhere in Wyoming.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Back in the Dry World

It was quite a change getting back to Mammoth after Old Faithful, and even more of a change when a friend and I headed down to the Rescue Creek trail for a hike.

That coyote was along the road to Gardiner and posed while we stopped at a pullout and took some photos. I've been seeing lots of coyotes lately--that one, more at Old Faithful, and today one trotted along the roads in Mammoth. I first spotted him near the post office and last saw him headed down the road toward Roosevelt.

Here's a couple looks at the Yellowstone River as it approaches Gardiner and the northern border of the park.

And just for the sake of showing the complete lack of snow, a group of bighorn sheep.

Although the trail looked bone dry, it was actually quite slippery with mud. We also saw another coyote, and a long line of elk along a distant ridge top. At one point, my friend made a sound I thought I recognized as meaning she'd encountered an icy patch but when I turned back saw a year old bison behind her. We moved on before mom arrived.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Old Faithful Winter Day 3

If it's February, those must be Great Horned Owls I hear across the street in the morning.

Back on Monday morning at Old Faithful, a coyote was prowling the basin.

I'm not sure which would be worse--being surrounded by bison or being neon green.

This sign is above the door of the Snow Lodge. The words in the brown circle are Nature, Mystery, Majesty, and Scenery. Not a bad combination.

Another coyote (or maybe the same one later in the day) went running down the road in front of us as we left Old Faithful. We'd see the same behavior by bison later on the trip, just as I'm sure we've all seen it with birds flying short distances ahead of us as we walked a trail wishing they'd just move to the side and let us pass without disturbing them.

A couple scenes from the Fountain Paint Pot area.

And another place I'd never seen before: Firehole Falls, which is located off Firehole Canyon Drive, one of the few side roads in Yellowstone. As on every one of these side roads I've traveled, I was stunned by the beauty.

This raven was investigating a long line of parked snowmobiles in search of a compartment containing food or some other treasure.

Then paused to investigate me.

I mentioned the bison we got stuck behind as we neared Mammoth. Animals use the roads in the winter because the snow is packed down and much easier traveling then forcing one's way through deep snow. It's an unfortunate situation for everyone involved when a vehicle gets trapped behind them.

I'll wind up my Old Faithful trip reports with bison butts in our headlights.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Old Faithful Winter Day 2

I'd be quite willing to wake every morning and look out my back window at snow and trees encircling me.

And boil some water for coffee.

The next photo shows Aurum Geyser erupting. Notice the engulfed handrail of the adjoining boardwalk.

My geyser timing continued to be very lucky during my visit because that one only erupts once every 2 1/2 to 5 hours. But imagine how unlucky you would be if you happened to be standing on that boardwalk where I found the snow and ice turned into mush when I reached it. Sometimes a hot shower isn't what you want in the morning.

I had a lucky weekend for geysers but not for hiking. My plan for this day was to go up to Biscuit and Black Sand Basins and see if I could feel the ground near Black Sand Pool thumping underfoot as a couple people had told me to experience. I started out on the most direct route but bison soon forced me into a long circuitous detour. Eventually I came out from behind some trees and faced this herd by the river.

I decided I wasn't going to make it to my goal that day and headed back again.

In time to watch some people watching Old Faithful.

Then I decided to take a shortcut to see how things looked at another trailhead I'd been told about but had never hiked. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but when one leg wound up immovable in thigh deep snow I had second thoughts and wondered if I'd rather die from embarrassment calling for help or from exposure overnight. With some gradual twisting, I eventually got myself free but not before my knee started loudly complaining about the whole experience.

Since the bison and the threat of my knee getting worse were curtailing hiking, I decided I'd head home a day early the following day.

That's a real raven, not a sign ornament. We'll get a closer look at one in the next installment.

A side view of my cabin. Yep, I could play Thoreau there.

That night I went on an evening tour, which included a stop at another place I hadn't been, Kepler Cascades, where we listened to the waterfall in the dark. Then on to see some geysers erupting in the light of our headlamps and flashlights. It was fun to get out in the park on a quiet winter night, but didn't make for great photographs.