Early spring, a time to savor the blessed warmth of the sun rising higher in the sky, the snow giving way to flowing creeks and warm ground, and all nature’s creatures relishing the release from the frigid challenge of staying alive. Soaking up the rays on a beautiful spring day is wonderful for all of us and this bison cow could not be more peaceful.
Today we will drive the loop from Bozeman, MT to enter Yellowstone through the West Entrance in West Yellowstone. We’ll then explore sections of the park that are open to early-spring auto travel, and return to Bozeman by way of Mammoth Hot Springs. Come, let’s explore together the season that is the promise of renewal!
Springtime in the Rocky Mountain west feels a bit schizophrenic–drastic changes in temperatures and quick changes in weather. One challenge is that any minute you can have winter return, anxious to keep its grip on the land. The heavy, wet springtime snow entices us with a winter wonderland that makes us smile, however, at this point I’ve had enough of winter for this year.
To some of the earliest new arrivals, this is feeling like a dirty trick. Mom–what’s up with this white stuff–and it’s cold out here?! Bison calves can be born in April, but they are more commonly born from May into early June. This little fella looks a bit shocked.
Then the sun streams through brightly and renews hope for green grass and young plants to feed on once more. They say that in the summer the ungulates (hoofed animals) feed on the most delicious cereal. However, in the winter they have to eat the boxes.
Yellowstone Lake is the largest fresh water lake above 7,000 feet in North America. It freezes over entirely in the winter with most of the ice across its 136 square miles of surface freezing to three feet thick except where shallow water covers hot springs. One amazing feature is that once the lake starts to thaw, it takes less than 10 days and is clear of ice due primarily to wind. Quite amazing. This is Carrington Island, a very small island not far from West Thumb consisting of mostly rock, one tree, and many visiting birds.
It is always exciting to see the first spring birds. The Mountain Bluebirds are some of the first to return, many years being seen as early as March. They have a secret to being able to survive while it is still winter. They feed very well on the bugs found in the bison dung, of which there is no shortage–Bon Appetit!
At lower elevations the first arrivals are Red-winged Blackbirds, Robins, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
With the water still cold and fishing still a little sparse, the Great Blue Heron nevertheless searches the shallows for his next meal. They return in spring rather than later in the season because they are opportunistic hunters, able to eat rodents, aquatic insects, and even small birds.
Spring is also the time for the arrival of the Harlequin Ducks. These small ducks do not visit many places in the lower 48 of the United States, but they do come to mate in the violent spring melt of LeHardy Rapids along the Yellowstone River. The females raise the young through the summer and in later September return to their primary northern range in western Canada and Alaska.
As the days warm, the predators also take time to enjoy the sun. This coyote found a hill of rocks warmed by the afternoon sun and fell asleep, even though he knew I was below him. I guess I don’t instill much fear, but he blends in so well that he probably has little to worry about anyway.
About mid February the big boar Grizzly Bears come out of hibernation, depending of course on the severity of the winter and depth of the snow. As spring unfolds, the Black Bear boars awake, all females with year-old young venture out, and finally the females with COY (cub of the year) make their appearance. The year-olds can be a bit curious, like this Cinnamon Black Bear cub.
Here’s a little Cinnamon COY, never far from Mom, but if frightened he’ll scamper up a tree almost quicker than you can visually follow.
As the ice melts away from the edges of ponds, we see Muskrats come out of their burrows through their underwater entrances. Muskrats are excellent swimmers and can stay under water for up to 15 minutes. They are prolific breeders which is a good thing since they are hunted in the water by large fish and snapping turtles; from overhead by owls, eagles, and hawks; on the ground by wolves, coyotes, foxes, badgers, lynx and more. Amazing he wasn’t afraid of me, since to add insult to injury, they are also hunted by humans.
The travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs change in appearance through the seasons, but you have to pay attention because the changes are subtle. The colors from the thermophiles (simplistically are heat-loving bacteria) alter due to temperature, light, and chemical changes. One great springtime feature, though, is that as the days warm there is less steam to obstruct your view.
All seem to be taking it easy on these first warm spring days. In the lower elevations the green grass is sprouting making everyone happy. This herd of Bighorn Sheep consists of ewes and last year’s young. Sheep tend to not be bothered by minimal human presence, but this little one did take an interest at first . . .
. . . but a nap seemed a better option pretty quickly.
Shedding winter coats make them appear a bit moth eaten, but it keeps them warm when night temperatures still reach 30°.
Springtime, the promise of the birth of young, renewed greening of the landscape, and the marvelous wildflower displays of color and texture across the meadows and hillsides. Early spring sees the first flowers, the hardy dandelions, who have their own struggles surviving in this harsh winter climate, but offer us our first bright spots of spring’s promise. They may be pests in your lawn and garden, but they are survivors in the wild; and they really do have a beauty all their own.
Until next time, savor the springtime gifts in your wild part of the world . . .