yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Mary Bay

2014-07-07 08.32.38

My field partner and I had fantastic luck this year with finding the unfindable. Seriously. Just like the salamanders hanging out in the Observation wetland, Mary Bay was even more of an unexpected surprise. There are only a handful of wetlands in the Park that have all four amphibian species and we were able to add Mary Bay to that list…it took us a few tries though.

The bottom portion of Mary Bay is filled with small thermal pools that dry up quickly and one very large pond that is so mucky around the edge that you can barely survey it. It’s actually pretty gross in there because it’s all filled with animal poo. The geese (as you can see in the photo above) and swans fill the wetland up. In fact, everything likes to poo in there. I’ve never seen so much tadpole poo in my life. I was scooping up large clumps of it. Heck, I even had to take a station break and go in the trees nearby. That never happens. Hailey’s Comet is more common.There’s just something very bowel releasing about the place. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with the fact that one scientist in the Park is convinced that if Yellowstone erupts, Mary Bay will be ground zero. Coincidence? I think not!

This is our annual July 4th survey. It’s usually scheduled for a half day and always takes a full day. Oh Mary Bay… The smaller sites were finished quickly because most had already dried up. The puddle-sized ones were bursting forth with tadpoles, adults still calling and attempting to lay even more eggs and metamorphs pouring out onto the dry ground. It was glorious. By the time we hit the Bay of Poo, the sky opened up and completely drenched us. Not the best way to begin an 1.5 hour survey! Because of the quicksand shoreline we were both only able to survey a small portion of the wetland. Despite this, we were convinced that we had seen spotted frog tadpoles, a load of chorus frog tadpoles, two fleeting salamander larvae and no toad tadpoles.

Later on, I spoke to Deb about what we’d seen and she mentioned being surprised that toad tadpoles are never found there because it’s thermal and they dig that scene. I began to question my amphibian identification skills at that point because, in retrospect, the thousands of small, dark tads clumped together along the shoreline seemed like they could have been toads. Toad tadpoles love to hang out in large congregations and are very curious. They won’t swim away when you approach them. In fact, they’ll usually swim right over to see what’s up. Other species definitely don’t act this way. At the time, we just couldn’t get that close to really tell for sure. So since we were returning in a few days to survey the dreaded upper sites, I agreed to give Poo Bay another looksee. Well, low-and-behold after much heated debate, we determined that the clumps of spotted frog tads were in fact, toads. By the hundreds! Thus, we were able to add Poo Bay to our small list of sites containing every amphibian species in the Park.

Surveying in Yellowstone is definitely like a box of chocolates…just not as tasty.

yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Indian Pond

Indian Pond. Home to a ton of toad tadpoles and many, but not as many, spotted frog tads.
Indian Pond. Home to a ton of toad tadpoles and many, but not as many, spotted frog tads.
Boreal toad tadpoles have this very characteristic behavior of clustering together. They're also very curious. Just dip a finger into the water and they'll swim right over and check you out.
I wasn’t kidding about the tons of toad tads!
Muskrat in Indian Pond
A muskrat tooling around the pond. This is the first muskrat I’ve seen in Yellowstone.
Indian Pond
Indian Pond at dusk. I actually watched a deer swim from one end of the pond to the other. It looked exhausting. That’s another first for me. Up until now, I didn’t really know that deer were keen on swimming.
yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Week 1

View from my bedroom window
Yup, that is a mound of snow…in June.

Well, having completed my first week of the 2014 field season, I can say that it’s started out in a very unexpected way. First, I swiftly came down with a pretty severe head cold about a week ago, which has seemingly reinvigorated itself today. I think it was a combination of the dust in the air and the musty-ness of the dorm messing with my allergies and then the extreme temperature change throwing my body into a complete tailspin. I went from very warm temps in New York and all the way out here to snow. Yup, snow. That’s not at all unheard of in June but my body did not get the memo. Second, our field refresher sessions have been in the absolute worst weather. I’m talking 20 to 30º with a mix of rain, sleet, hail and snow. We had to completely bail out of Gibbon Meadows one day but not before getting completely drenched and near hypothermic. Luckily, before I ventured out into the field I bought a really awesome coat from the gift shop for super cheap. It completely saved my arse because although I brought enough warm clothes to get by, I failed to bring anything resembling a coat. Yikes!

We were actually supposed to begin surveying Crystal Bench with the other field crew on Wednesday but the weather report looked so miserable (snow, sleet, hail…) that we didn’t do it. We figured that the visibility and the conditions in the wetlands would make it hard to find anything. However, the other field crew managed to hike out there during the storm to install data loggers (they measure wetland temperature and water depth) in a few of the Crystal Bench wetlands with a bunch of helpers from USGS. While they were out there they realized that the sites were teaming with boreal toad tadpoles. They were finding them by the thousands! Compare this to last year when we saw about four toad tadpoles in that wetland complex. Now, before you freak, boreal toad tadpoles prefer thermal waters so they were fine despite the snow. Needless to say, they completed our surveys of Crystal Bench for us and me and my partner were able to scratch that site off our list without ever having to go there. It’s kind of a bummer though because it’s one of my favorite places to survey.

Our field gear.
Our field gear.
The rest of the crew stomping around the wetland trying to calibrate their equipment.
The rest of the crew stomping around the wetland trying to calibrate their equipment.
This black slick is actually zillions of what seem to be fleas. Ick!
This black slick is actually zillions of what seem to be fleas. Ick!

Speaking of boreal toads. I’m convinced they’re hitting it big this year which is fantastic news. They’ve always been found in a few thermal pockets throughout the Park, however, on a larger scale they’re being hit hard by disease. Throughout their normal range, most populations are in decline. And although an estimated 80% of Yellowstone’s frogs have the same disease responsible for mass extinctions elsewhere, the elevation and climate conditions seem to have made it so the toads can either shed or suppress it (researchers are still trying to figure out how they’re doing it). Yup, it all comes down to location, location, location. From our visit to Indian Pond on Monday, and then our brief and unpleasant trip to Gibbon Meadows on Tuesday and then the news from Crystal Bench on Wednesday, we’re seeing them in massive numbers this year. Just in Indian Pond, I’d estimate that we saw a few hundred tadpoles last year whereas we’re talking in the thousands now. The only difference I can think of is that this is a wet year compared to last years drought year but I’m not sure this is the driving force. No matter what the reason, it’s good to see them thriving somewhere.

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Yellowstone: July 10th, 2013

2013-07-10 11.27.16This is the day (sniffle, sniffle) that the Wisconsinites leave for Glacier National Park. I will miss them terribly. Even their constant door-slamming that would rob me of much-needed sleep will be missed. If I had to choose between never sleeping again or keeping them forever, I would choose them. Those three people have very quickly become some of my favorite people in the whole wide world. And not only did they crack me up on a continual basis but they actually taught me a lot about forest and fire ecology. Funny and smart, what a great combo. In particular, they were studying the effects of a warming climate on post-fire tree growth in several parks. Thus far, the research has indicated that burned forests re-grow significantly slower in dry, warm years compared to cool, wet years. If things continue to get warmer, our trees and forests are in a lot of trouble. It’s scary to even consider the severity of the situation. Between slower post-fire regeneration and tree devouring insects no longer being killed off during cold winters it’s all a hot, bleak mess.

I thrust some farewell soap their way, had Andrew stick a sarcastic love letter on their dashboard, and bid them a sad goodbye. Then we were off to Grebe Canyon‘s Observation Point. And yes, we were hurting even before the hike but we were assured by Deb that it would be an easy day (I’m laughing as I write this). It was only one site and it was a mere kilometer off a well-traveled trail…piece of cake. Not! I’m starting to think that Deb is a robo-human. The trail started out level and easy for the first few miles. Such a nice walk. On the way in we saw a bison grazing nearby and not too far from it was a mother grizzly bear with three cubs. We were at a safe distance so I took my phone out and snapped a few blurry photos. We improved our karma by informing a few nearby fishermen that the grizzly family was headed their way. Then we started our 3-mile hike UP to Observation Point. As we were hiking we noticed that the grizzly family was headed our way–not the most reassuring realization. We ended up a little too close for comfort but that didn’t stop Andrew from declaring himself a jerk and snapping some photos before we got our hustle on. I remember the bear expert at safety training saying that you will never know if you’re a runner or a stander until you’re faced with a grizzly. I always assumed I would be the type to calmly stand and back away but that is sooooo not the case. Let me assure you, I did not run. It was more of a hybrid between walking and running. It was a brisk hustle. Luckily Andrew was behind me, calmly reminding me to slow down. After the adrenaline wore off and the coast was clear, we were faced with a seemingly never-ending uphill climb. The views of Cascade and Grebe Lakes, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Hayden Valley, the Yellowstone River and Yellowstone Lake and Mount Sheridan were absolutely spectacular. You can literally see most of the highlights of the Park from up there. I highly suggest the hike but our bodies started out busted and every step just added to the pain.

It took us easily close to two hours to get to the top of Observation Point but it was glorious once we got there. There was a neat little cabin at the peak which I would love to make into my very own tiny house. Around the side of the cabin I heard Andrew make some amazing exclamations about the sheer size of something and that I had to come see whatever it was. I turned the corner to see him looking at the worlds most enormous chipmunk. Apparently they grow em real big up there. It looked like it was on steroids. It kept scurrying closer to us and inquisitively peering out from behind the boulders. Sometimes it would rest its arms on the top of a rock, clasping hands, tilting its head, and excitedly gaze at us.  It was rather comical. (Note: Deb has now informed me that there is a species of squirrel that has the same markings as a chipmunk. Mother Nature, you are tricky sometimes! I now presume this is what we saw…I don’t have the heart to tell Andrew though.) From the peak we had a 1 kilometer downhill, off-trail hike to the wetland. Ouch! There was even a boulder scramble thrown in there for extra masochism. The wetland was really nice and jam-packed with chorus frog tadpoles. Awe, I still love their googly eyes and pinched waists! It took a half hour to survey and then it was back up to Observation Point. We were on death’s door during the hike up. The only thing that kept our will to live intact was knowing that it was all downhill and on-trail as soon as we reached the peak. We eventually made it and headed back down to the valley.  The downhill walk was brutal on my already hurting joints. Every downward step just pounded the skeleton. Andrew was super quick, sometimes running down and peeling around corners, but I was slow as molasses thanks to my aching hip and knee. When did I become such an old lady? Once we got back down to Cascade Lake, we met several people who apprised us of all the bear goings on since we left. A fisherman got a great video of the mother bathing her cubs in the lake. And another visitor saw a bison charge the mother. So, regretfully, we missed a whole lot of excitement. As we bid them farewell, we noticed a few people in their group walking out of the woods where the grizzly family had been hanging out all day. Just when you thought people couldn’t get any dumber! Seriously!? The rest of the hike out was very hot and of course Andrew didn’t bring enough water so he was miserable. He was so out of it that he stopped to ask an older gent who looked like he just left the golf course if he had a water filter. The guy didn’t even have a water bottle! I eventually had to give him some of mine so we could make it to the car. Andrew is a piece of work…thankfully an awesome one.

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On the way back to the dorm we stopped off at the Canyon general store to get some groceries and the store patrons were horrified at the sight of us. We looked like the walking dead, hobbling around, with our clothes dirtied and disheveled. We were both lobster red and sweaty because the sun completely baked us. Compared to the pristine, finely coiffed tourists, we were a complete freakin’ mess. When we got home I made it a point to engage the butterfly people (Richard and Mardel) and one of the two wolf men in a discussion about astrology. Brian, one the Wisconsinites, described their astrological skills as feeling like they had “peered into his soul”. I had to get a taste of this magic for myself. The topic instantly animated this rather quite twosome. It was interesting to hear what they had to say. Upon first meeting they can usually accurately guess your sign and know who you will be compatible with. What amused me the most is that Andrew just stood in the corner and quietly took it all in. He doesn’t even know his own astrological sign and thinks it’s all hoopla so I couldn’t help but ponder his nay-saying inner dialog during the discussion. He’s a funny little stinker! I was in too much pain to sleep well, despite the Advil (I should be paid to promote Advil.). Once again, I was trapped in the forest, unable to get out.

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Yellowstone: July 9th, 2013

Day two of the Shoshone catchment. This is the day we surveyed the rest of the sites in this wetland complex. Site 13 was way too remote from the rest of the wetlands to survey all in one fell swoop so it was broken up into two days and two vastly different experiences. It’s been three or four days since Andrew and I surveyed this site and I’ve already blocked it out. I can’t really even give you the details of this experience other than…

* it was extremely low-quality amphibian habitat
* it took about 2.5 to 3 hours (each way) to get from the wetlands to the car
* the terrain was brutal: non-stop mountainous terrain with steep valleys, plus mature downed trees with thick re-growth that will gladly stab and puncture you with every painful step
*Andrew ran out of water near the end and was near insanity
* it was blazing hot (95 degrees)
* the insects were awful
* my left hip was completely rubbing and nearly out of socket–bone on bone
* my left knee was strained so I had a badass limp happening

It was basically twelve hours of climbing mountains, climbing over or under logs, getting stabbed and sliced, being devoured by insects, sweating profusely, getting fried to a crisp by the sun, and being completely unprepared for extreme thirst…all to find a handful of tadpoles with no decent breeding habitat to speak of. It was a stark contrast from the day before. We returned back to the dorm near death. Instead of washing our gear and prepping for the next day, we both made a B-line towards any physical relief we could find. I laid on the couch and Andrew sat next to me in the chair and we immediately passed out. We only woke up because my snoring scared the crap out of the both of us. Eventually, I was able to scrape myself off the couch to call Deb and tell her we made it back in semi one piece. Her day of surveying was equally trying with the exception of seeing two white wolves. One of the wolves was so surprised to see Deb that it dropped what it had in its mouth and ran away. Upon inspection, the item dropped was a deer head. How freakin cool is that?! Andrew and I never see cool crap! I almost didn’t have the heart to tell Andrew about it because he’s been dying to see a wolf. Yellowstone will be a letdown if he doesn’t see at least one. Hopefully, we can make it back in time tomorrow to go out to Hayden Valley with the wolf men. Since they’re studying the Lamar and Hayden Valley wolf packs, they’re the guys to go with for a guaranteed visual and they’ve invited us along. When my broken body finally laid down to sleep that night, I couldn’t find any relief, despite the copious amounts of Advil in my system. I kept dreaming I was stuck in Shoshone and couldn’t find my way out. I literally only slept for four hours that night and I haven’t slept well since.

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: July 8th, 2013

DSCF2151I woke up and got right down to the business of catching up on my journal entries from the past week. I was so engrossed in writing that Andrew busted in and lit a fire under my ass. It was noon and I hadn’t even gotten out of bed and here he was, having just driven 5.5 hours from Casper, ready to survey site 13 of the Shoshone catchment with me. Yup, only one survey today because the hike in and out is going to be tricky. I hustled and we were on the road in no time. The off-trail hike was moderately strenuous and took about two hours each way. The wetland was well worth it. We found tons (okay, not literally tons…but close) of chorus frog tadpoles. And you know how I love them! My only complaint was the sheer number of mosquitoes and biting flies. Holy gawd! As soon as we got to the pond we were absolutely devoured. These blood thirsty suckers completely laugh at you when you frantically try to apply repellant. They laugh…you can hear them chuckling in your ear if you listen hard enough. Overall, it was a high-quality site to survey, despite the blood loss. After work I treated myself to a black bean burger with fries and a scoop of ice cream at the Fishing Bridge soda fountain. Yum! Sometimes running out of food can be a tasty dilemma. Then it was back to the dorm to goof off with my other dorm-mates for the rest of the night. All is well in my world.