Friday, 28 August 2015

13th August - Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming - Day Three

Not quite the same early start as the day before, but we were off before sunrise.  The skies too were a lot clearer and the signs were for another lovely sunny day.  Today we were intending to explore the north western part of the park, and we were wanting to get past the road construction just north of the Norris Junction before the traffic builds up.  The road was closed up until 7.00 am so we did still have time to stop off along the way to continue to enjoy the spectacular scenery that is further enhance by the wonderful light at this time of day.

After the road crossed the Madison River and ran alongside it we could see the mist once again hanging over the water, being lit up by the early rays of light.



A little further on Elk were feeding on the banks of the river, the grass though dry and brown, turned golden in the sunshine.



At the junction we turned left and followed the road along side the Gibbon River.  There are several small geysers and hot springs alongside the road, and in the cold morning air, the temperature around 40 degrees fahrenheit , the steam was filling the air like a thick mist on a October morning.



Having passed it several times over the last few days we decided to stop to have a look at Gibbon Falls.  Not as high as the other water falls we have seen, nonetheless it was still impressive.  The water flowing over the harder granitic rhyolite rock on the edge of the Yellowstone caldera.



The road then opens out into wide meadows with views stretching out from both sides of the road, the lush green of the meadow accentuated in the morning sunshine.



As I stood looking out over the open space I could hear honking calls in the distance and then the calls turned into two Sandhill Cranes flying towards me and then overhead and away over the trees.



A little further on where the road goes close to one of the meanders of the Gibbon River there is a terrace of hot springs, and the area was again shrouded in mist and steam creating some lovely landscapes.  The pines appearing from the grey mist.





Tops of mountains floating above the pure white cloud.



By the side of the river a small flock of Canada Geese slowly made their way from me.



Leaving just the river to smoulder and shroud the distant pines.



On reaching the Norris Junction we headed straight on in the direction of Mammoth.  As i mentioned earlier the road is currently under construction, with some major work being carried out.  As a result the black-top has been removed and in places it is just a single carriageway under traffic control.  This meant no stopping which was extremely frustrating as we past lovely clear still lakes with amazing reflections of the surrounding mountains, and the area of Beaver Lakes renowned for the good possibility of both beaver and bear.  Nevermind we could do nothing about it, the positive thing though was the fact we managed to get through easily with out any major hold ups.

Back on the tarmac we decided to stop for breakfast at a turnout next to Willow Park.  Close to the turnout a small creek bubbled along, and other than the odd car passing it was wonderfully silent, and we could enjoy the scenery in peace.



The signs said this was prime moose country, water and a bog being ideal for them, and you can see why.



There were no moose though, instead there was something a little smaller, much smaller in fact but definitely a lot cuter...



A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, it is similar to chipmunks in more than just its appearance as it like the chipmunk will hide food in burrows, transporting it in cheek pockets.  It is equally at home in a wide variety of forest habitats as well as rocky meadows, and even sagebrush flats, just what we were finding here

It had no fear of us as it ran along the stone wall finding little titbits to eat, and no doubt it also gets fed by the cars that pull over to look at this idyllic spot, I can tell you that this little guy is quite fond of banana.



Hard to think of anything cuter, but it was not alone there were also others prepared to give it a run for its money.  The better known Chipmunk, or to give it its full name, the Least Chipmunk.



The smallest species of chipmunk they are commonly found in sage bush areas, alongside rivers and in conifer trees, so again all of those ticked here then

They preferred to stay around the trees and if they approached the stone wall they were immediately chased off.



As well as the squirrels and chipmunks there were several songbirds in the bushes, a few White-throated Sparrows and several of these Yellow Warblers.



Tearing ourselves away from the squirrel we continued along the road towards Mammoth.  After a couple of mile the road enters a wide open valley where on the west side there was a large lake, and beyond it the Gallatins Mountain range.  The lake is known as Swan Lake due to the fact that Trumpeter Swans gather here in the winter.  This morning though the lake was home to about 50 Blue-winged Teal that took to the air when we got out of the car.



They circled the lake, back and forth before finally settling back on the water.



The Gallatin range looked quite spectacular in the morning sunshine.



Directly in the middle is Quadrant Mountain, to its left the next peak is Antler Peak, and to the far left, the highest peak at just over 10,000 feet is Mt Holmes.  To the right of Quadrant Mountain at the far edge of the picture are the distant peaks of Electric Peak and Sepulcher Mountain.

We walked down to the waters edge, and had better views of the mountains reflecting in the still clear waters of Swan Lake.



There were one or two birds in the reeds and I think these are Vesper's Sparrows, but they are very difficult to distinguish, the american sparrows being very difficult LBJs.



As well as the sparrows there were several large Dragonflies about as well as a few smaller Flame Skimmers which were hard to pin down and several blue damselflies.  The large Dragonfly is I think, from the abundance of them almost everywhere, a Green Darner, one of the commonest dragonflies in North America.  here two were engaged in a little bonding.



The Green Darner is not only the commonest in North America, but also the largest.  It also conducts considerable migrations moving from the northern states south as far as Mexico and Texas.

As we approached Mammoth there were signs for upper and lower terrace drives, now I confess to not having researched or read much on this area, my main focus being on the wildlife opportunities around the park.  It wasn't until Helen pointed out the picture used on the official park guide and map that we began to realise that this could be a special place.  Nothing was closer to the truth.

We pulled over at a spot just outside Mammoth when we saw some impressive cliffs created by the mineral deposits, looking up they were contrasted with the now beautifully blue sky.



This was the cliff face of the upper terrace of the Mammoth Hot Springs.  Bother the lower and upper terraces are the product of dissolved subterranean limestone called travertine which is continually deposited as the hot spring waters cool on contact with the air.  Travertine often has a fibrous or concentric appearance and exists in white, tan, cream-coloured, and even rusty varieties.




While limestone is base rock of the area, hot water is the creative force of the terraces. Without it, terrace growth stops and colour vanishes.  Even though Mammoth lies north of the caldera ring-fracture system, a fault running north from the Norris Geyser Basin, about 21 miles away, connects Mammoth to the hot water of that system. A system of small fissures then carries water upward to create approximately 50 hot springs in the Mammoth Hot Springs area.


Ahead of us we could see more car parks and board walks leading off around the lower area, so we headed down, parked the car and set off to explore this unique landscape.

According to the guides there is about an hour's worth of boardwalks that lead around the terraces, we started at the bottom passing greyish white limestone, much of this area is dormant at the moment, and has allowed life to begin to colonise the area like this small pine.



As the boardwalk winds its way through the lower terraces dead trees with bleached bark dominate the lower area.



While the terraces themselves are fascinating the major attraction for us were the colours and patterns the deposits and bacterial mats produce when looked at closely.  The colours are produced mainly by the bacteria and algae that flourish in the warm waters..




The first main terrace we came upon was Jupiter Terrace, a series of steps down with cascading, steam water.  In the 1980s this flowed so much it covered the boardwalks, now just a trickle




In amongst the steam Violet-green Swallows, identifiable by the white patches on thee side of the thighs, flew, and some seemed to even be nesting in holes in the terrace cliff faces above the rising steam.



The boardwalk winds its way below the Main terrace, looking up you can see how the cliff has formed.



Steps lead up to a viewpoint over the main terrace and you can look south across towards Canary Springs, and the Upper Terraces.



Or north towards Mammoth and the Gardiner River Valley away in the distance.





Across the terrace dead trees emerge from the rock, and in places at their base new life is emerging, the trees having been killed by the initial advance of the hot water, the grasses growing as silt and dust gather on the exposed rock.





The boardwalk winds around to an overlook where you can get up close to the patterns in the water.




And the smaller terrace steps give an indication of how the whole area has formed over the millions of years.



Finally the boardwalk ends at Canary Spring, so named for its bright yellow colour, Canary owes its brilliance to sulphur dependent filamentous bacteria. The colours blend here in delicate tints on the creamy rock face.





From the Hot Springs we took the time to walk around Mammoth which was formerly known as Fort Yellowstone up until 1918, this was when the army managed the park.  Many of the building emanate from then, and the manner in which they are laid out is completely different from the other settlements in the park.  In fact this one seemed to completely compliment the surrounding countryside, the building colours reflecting the same colours as the rocks and vegetation, it was also immaculately clean.  Many of the buildings were stables, a granary and even a jail.  Today they are used for employee residences. 

From Mammoth we headed north the short way to the park entrance, stopping to take in the surrounding cliffs.


And the Gardiner River that winds its way through them,following south from the town of Gardiner to the Yellowstone River


But then we decided to turn back and head off east along the road to the Tower-Roosevelt Junction, this took us high over the Gardiner River Bridge, and then followed the river past several water falls, one of which was the Udine Falls a three stepped falls.


The road continued through Pine forests until the valley opened up and we had views of the Blacktail Ponds where we pulled over.


A trail led down alongside the pools, so I headed down to get a better view of the water and its inhabitants, Helen preferred to stay with the car to watch the valley.

There were several family groups of Lesser Scaup, with varying ages of ducklings.


Darner Dragonflies were hawking over the water, and in the reeds was a Brown-headed Cowbird.


To the far end of the pond was a group of Blue-winged Teal, but the ground was too marshy to get close enough.  I turned back and disturbed a Ruddy Duck from close to the bank.


Helen called from the car to say that she had picked up a small group of Pronghorn coming down the side of the valley towards the water.


I watched them as they slowly made their way towards the ponds.  The group was led by a female, with a male lagging far behind.  Their approach was very careful, with them continually stopping to look around to see if it was safe to continue.

I started to make my way back up to the car, stopping to photograph a yellow butterfly.


I think this is a Pelidne Sulphur, a butterfly found more in Canada, but that also extends into Montana and Wyoming.

Back at the car we watched the Pronghorn come closer and closer, and they were clearly coming down to drink.  Finally the group climbed down the ridge and found a spot of water. The leading female though did not join them, staying on the ridge watching.


The male kept coming and walked through the group to drink, and then once finished started to check out the females!

Leaving the ponds we turned off the main highway onto the Blacktail Plateau drive.  This was a one way gravel road, and to be honest did not produce anything really different.  We passed a lone Bison.


And at the highest point there was quite a spectacular view north.


Apparently in early summer the area is awash with the colourful flowers, and from September there is a lot of autumn colour, we had arrived in between these two seasons.

Re-joining the main road we decided to stop for lunch at The Roosevelt Lodge, the lodge being named after Theodore Roosevelt who visited the park in 1903.As we ate lunch on the porch of the general stores we were joined by yet another ground squirrel, this time it was a Unita Ground Squirrel, this one like bread.


It was now hot, the temperature into the low nineties.  We decided to drive through The Lamar Valley once again, not expecting to see that much, but just to get the chance to see it in the sunshine, something we didn't manage yesterday.


There were small groups of Bison in the valley, but nothing like the activity we saw yesterday morning.


Mid afternoon is not the best time in the park, its hot, the animals retreat to cooler places, and the amount of tourists increases significantly.  We decided to make our way back to West Yellowstone, we were leaving the next day o go east, so it would give us time to get organised, however there was one more surprise left in the day, as we wound our way through the mountains the traffic slowed due to three Bighorn Sheep by the side of the road, while they were not the impressive males with the big horns, it was nice to see a female, and quite close up.


The rest of the journey took us through what by now had become familiar landscape, and then back to the hotel.  Our journey tomorrow would allow us time to explore an area we hadn't done properly yet, the Geyser Basin, and then away to the eastern part of the park, and out to Cody.  After sorting ourselves out, it was time for dinner and then an early night, because we wanted an early start, the best time of the day in Yellowstone Park.

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