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SNAP*Shots: The Marvelous Monument Plant

What are those tall stalks growing in the meadows? Do you see them? Let’s explore.

This four- foot stalk is covered with small flowers, and the flowers are green with purple dots. They look more like they belong in subtropic areas of the world, not the meadows of Yellowstone. So unusual and so beautiful.

This is a Green Gentian (Frasera speciosa), also called the Monument Plant, and is monocarpic. No, I didn’t know what that was either, but it thoroughly explains this unique plant. Green gentian can live to be 80 years old, but each year of its life all you see are the pretty basal leaves growing a few feet tall and reaching to the sky until . . .

. . . the last year of its life when it produces a stalk from 4 to 7 feet tall covered with beautiful small  flowers. The flowers range from pale green to white with purple or blue dots, but I’ve only ever seen the flowers in shades of green. This is the  “monument” phase. Each flower produces up to 60 seeds ensuring the next generation. The plant then dies leaving the dead stalk which may stand a few years, as you can see above.

So “monocarpic” means growing many years without flowering, then flowering and dying after its seeds are developed. We may see many stalks across a meadow or only a few, but the stalks tell us that this is the last hoorah of this amazing monument plant.

20b gypsum further up trail

SNAP*Shot: Annual Visit with Harlequin Ducks

It’s Mother’s Day and once again the Harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) are at LeHardy Rapids not far from Yellowstone Lake.  We talked about them a few years ago, but they are fascinating and so beautiful. Let’s visit with them again.

Look there . . .

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SNAP*Shot: Red Foxes

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the most widespread and adaptable mammal on earth. They are found in very diverse habitats from the Arctic to the desert. The also adapt easily to human environments such as farms, suburbia, and even cities. Foxes have a nickname, “reynard”, from the French word renard, which refers to someone who is unconquerable due to his cleverness. The resourcefulness of the red fox has earned it a legendary reputation for cunning and intelligence.

Yellowstone has been home to red foxes for many years, first documented in the 1880s.  The red fox is the smallest canid (dog family Canidae) of three found in the park, coyote and wolf being the other two. Foxes rarely howl like wolves or yip and sing like coyotes, they bark. They do have many communication sounds, but primarily they bark. The average female (vixen)  weighs about 10 pounds. The male (dog) weighs 11-12 pounds. They stand about 16 inches tall at the shoulder and are about 3 feet long. One third of their length is that beautiful, bushy, white-tipped tail. Although the average lifespan in the wild is 3-7 years, red fox in Yellowstone can live up to 11 years. I guess they love it as much as we do!

Continue . . .

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SNAP*Shot: Winter’s Sunrise

Sunrise is a good news/bad news scenario in wintry Yellowstone. The bad news is that it is extra cold before the sun comes up and winters in Yellowstone can be colder than -40° although -25° might be more usual. Still, that is pretty cold! So the good news? Well, the sun doesn’t come up until about 7:40am unlike summer when it rises at 5am! OK, later start time, colder weather–not a bad trade off since we can add layers. Let’s bundle up and head out. We’ll have breakfast when we get back.

Thirty minutes before sunrise, as the sky begins to brighten, we have gorgeous muted colors all along the western horizon. Be sure to keep your skin covered, it’s cold out here!

No slouching, let’s get out there . . .

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SNAP*Shot: Whitebark Pine

The Whitebark Pine, a foundation species, a keystone species, is dying in great numbers across the mountain west, which includes Yellowstone.

I stand tall, proud, ancient. Overlooking the beautiful valley, the Caldera, and the mountains. Through wind, snow, ice, and rain–I stand tall. My brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles are not doing well. It is getting too hot and we have no defense against the diseases and insects that thrive in warmth. We love frigid weather, standing high above the tree line, loving the windswept mountainsides; some of us only 16 feet tall, others 66 feet tall, and our seasoned relatives are over a 1,000 years old. Regardless of size or age, we all stand guard on the mountainsides, using our shade to keep snow hard and in place until it can gently melt filling your rivers and streams. Stabilizing the soil around us which allows other plants and trees to live in our community. Feeding and giving protection to many animal and bird friends, as well as being nurseries for Lodgepole pines, Englemann spruce, and Subalpine firs. It is becoming too warm and staying warm for too long each season–I’m weakening and many of us are dying. I’m very worried–what will happen if we can no longer stand guard?

We do our jobs for humans quietly, consistently, and proudly. Humans must now do their job to save us–the dangers are real and getting worse! In the meantime, I stand tall, proud–and hopeful.

Let’s take a closer look at the amazing importance and struggle of the whitebark pine.

whitebark pine

Continue to learn what and why . . .

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SNAP*Shot: Mountain Goats

There is one thing about mountain goats; they really blend into their surroundings. Considering they were about 10 yards off the road down a slight slope with a nearby parking area, it didn’t seem possible that no one saw them, but no one stopped. I don’t think people knew what we were photographing so intently as they drove by. We loved it!


Continue . . .

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SNAP*Shot: July 4 Dazzle!

Is there any better way to spend the July 4 weekend than taking a photo seminar at Lamar Buffalo Ranch? Hint: the answer is NO! Bison walking around the cabins, badgers visiting, Pronghorn and even moose wandering through the valley, and a short walk into the mountains for flowers and quiet.


Wait a minute, it is July 4th. We are missing the fireworks, the ooo’s and aaaah’s, the smiles on everyone’s face. So as the sun begins to set, looking west we have an amazing golden evening. Not fireworks, but beautiful. The clouds begin to cover the sun that we will not see again today except for it highlighting the clouds and offering orange along the horizon.

sunset July 4-1075-

In Yellowstone it is always a good idea to turn around. There might be something big coming your way, but more often there is a beautiful sight you just couldn’t see from the other direction. Right now is no exception. The storms are coming in from the east, and as the golden sun hits the storm clouds–we have our “fireworks”!

Rainbow at days end-0792

Don’t forget to slow down and look behind you! Until next time . . .

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SNAP*Shot: Eared Grebes

eard grebe2-7504

What a surprise! On my morning walk around Cattail Lake there were six pair of Eared Grebes. I have only ever seen them in Yellowstone but here they are. I know they nest in colonies, so maybe six pair could be a colony? I’m so excited that we may have baby Grebes close to home this year! The young ride on their parent’s back for the first two weeks of their lives. What a sight that would be! Let’s see what a little research turns up.

Continue . . .

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SNAP*Shot: Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans, beautiful and majestic, are North America’s largest waterfowl and heaviest flying bird. This dark, windy winter day is brightened by this white beauty keeping an eye on us as she guards her family. Females are called a pens; males are called cobs.

adult trumpeter swan

Trumpeter Swans are a native species to North America. Most Trumpeters weigh 21-30 pounds, although large males can reach 35 pounds. Standing on the ground, an adult male can stand four feet high. With a wingspan over seven feet carrying that heavy body, Trumpeters need at least 100 yard “runway” of open water; running hard and fast across the surface of the water in order to generate enough speed for take off. What a sight!

Beginning in the late 1800s, Trumpeter’s were hunted to near extinction for their feathers to adorn fashionable hats, skin for face powder puffs, and long flight feathers coveted for writing quills. Aggressive conservation efforts helped the species recover by the early 2000’s. Since they generally build their nests atop beaver or muskrat dens, overhunting of these rodents diminished breeding habitat for Trumpeters. As the rodent populations recovered, the swan numbers improved. One of these years you’d think we’d recognize that this world is a system with each part relying on the others, including animals, bugs, birds, plants and people, hopefully helping preserve the balance. Sigh . . . but we did good with the Trumpeters since in most of their range there are healthy populations that continue to increase.

Nests are sometimes built on large floating mats of vegetation. Their nest can be 11 feet across and 3 feet high and is often used by the same pair year after year. The young swans, called cygnets, turn white at about 1-1/2 years old. There are usually four to six eggs in a swan’s clutch. Trumpeters have an unusual way of incubating their eggs: they warm the eggs by covering them with their webbed feet. Once hatched in June, the cygnets can swim and feed within 24 hours. By 15 weeks they will have gained over a pound a week reaching up to 20 lbs. and will now be able to fly.

young trumpeter swans

It is assumed that Trumpeters mate for life, but it appears that they change mates a number of times over their normal  lifetimes of more than 20 years. Cygnets stay with the parents over their first winter, but the parents chase them away in the spring as they begin planning for their next family. The young swans stay in sibling groups until about two years old when they themselves start the search for a mate and a new life in a remote open-water area.

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SNAP-Shot: Winter at the Lower Falls

Yellowstone in the white wrapping of winter is a stunning wonderland. Winter at the Lower Falls is magical with blue ice growing ever thick and wide in this frigid season. An ice cone forms at the base of the falls from splash, mist, and snowfall until it is over half as tall as the falls itself. The water, thick with cold, crashes down 308 feet sending mist into the air taller than the falls. The roar of the falls from Lookout Point is muffled this time of year from all the constraints in it’s path, but once at the bottom, the Yellowstone River flows downhill and north, free of the ice cover it struggled through before the falls. The beauty of this place just begs for us to linger. As the wind picks up, we don’t have enough layers to keep the freezing chill at bay, so time to return to the warmth of the snowcoach and smile at the beauty of this special place.

Lower Falls in Winter

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SNAP*Shot: Dusky Grouse

dusky grouse male

Dusky Grouse are so interesting and this year I had an up-close and personal encounter. These birds, about the size of a chicken and weighing up to three pounds, would rather walk than fly. Best known by locals for scaring the daylights out of you since they wait until you are about two feet away then fly up in a rapid, flurried take off. Yikes, my heart! Here we have a male in full mating display last June, too busy courting to bother with us. He struts and hops with tail raised and fanned, neck feathers spread revealing his bright skin patch, loud wing thumping, and making a deep wump-wump-wump, a sound that can be heard great distances by springtime hikers walking through the forest.

More grousing

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SNAP*Shot: Yellowstone’s Iconic Lower Falls

The best known site in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the Lower Falls. Twice as tall as Niagara Falls, water drops 308 feet resulting in mist and froth at its base adding drama and beauty. During the autumn when water flow is at its lowest, about 5,000 gallons (19,000 liters) of water per SECOND drops to the canyon floor. During peak spring runoff 63,500 gallons (240,000 liters) per SECOND thunders over the brink.

Lower Falls

The 20-mile long canyon is up to 1,200 feet deep and up to 4,000 feet wide. The beauty of the deep V-shaped canyon wall colors frame the gorgeous falls. The colors come from different levels of thermal intensity interacting with the rhyolite walls. You can see some of the thermal activity in the canyon walls during the day, but when the temperatures drop you’ll be amazing at all the thermals up and down the walls spewing their steam and losing their anonymity.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Never forget, it is amazing what finding a great spot to relax and beautiful light can do for your spirit. Enjoy . . .

Lower Falls Rainbow