28 September 2012

Friday Field Notes

The beautiful weather of late has kept me from dragging winter clothes out from the depths of my closet, and has instead forced me to continue enjoying what nature has to offer. Here's some notes, observations, and photographs from a recent trip up to Glacier National Park:

Colors across the spectrum.

Fall foliage is really starting to take off. The aspens (Populus tremuloides) are shimmering gold, or are quite close to it. Plants of the understory, such as grouse whortleberry (Vaccinium scoparium) and huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum), fill the hillsides with shades of red and orange. Contrasted against the rich greens of conifers, the deep grays and purples of the ancient sedimentary cliffs, and the regal blues of Glacier's many alpine lakes, hiking in the park these days is like walking through a dreamland. I don't know that I have ever seen so many colors on display at once!


If you've ever been to a national park - especially one inhabited by grizzlies - you know how serious the National Park Service is when it comes to bears and safety. This time of year, the message is even more important. As bears prepare for hibernation in late summer and early fall, they enter into hyperphagia, a status literally of excessive hunger and consumption. Feeding primarily on berries, insects, and whitebark pine seeds, bears can easily consume over 15,000 calories per day. The need to constantly find more food and pack on fat leads to bears being particularly active this time of year, and as a result, increases the likelihood of an encounter with a bear. Two days in Glacier yielded three grizzly sightings, one of which was an adult male that essentially popped out of nowhere a mere fifty feet from me while hiking near Bullhead Lake in the Many Glacier valley. The other bears - a sow with her cub of the year - were observed high on a talus slope, likely digging through rocks for moths and other insects. So, to steal a line from the NPS, "Be Bear Aware" if you head out into the hills this fall.

Other Critters Abound

So you're a devoted birder and have read the passage in your Sibley Guide to Western Birds where it says golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) nest on rocky cliffs in mountainous areas, but you've only ever seen them on the plains or near agricultural fields. Well, that was me. Until this past weekend, when I managed to spot one soaring high near Swiftcurrent Pass, later coming to a roost on a cliff no more than one-hundred yards from the trail, allowing for a great look through binoculars. A few lucky people might get to see these massive raptors harassing young goats and sheep in an attempt to drive them off cliffs, a fascinating hunting strategy, unless you're the goat.

A young goat, not at all disturbed by my presence
Speaking of goats, there was no shortage of these fuzzy white critters in Glacier. On the Highline Trail near Logan Pass, I was lucky enough to see a ewe and her kid, as well as a lone goat up close and personal (seen to the left). Admittedly, I was a bit more excited than many of you likely are when you see a mountain goat, as this was my first time! Along with all the goats, there was a somewhat uncommon sighting of a bighorn sheep. I've seen sheep before in Wyoming as well as Montana, but this was a vintage scene: high up on a narrow ledge, traversing across loose rock, totally poised (I wish I could move across the side of a mountain like that!). It's observations like these that make you fully appreciate and understand how life has evolved to survive in some of the most challenging landscapes.


Perhaps this photo best sums up the weekend...

Tranquility, stillness, and solitude are just some of the words that come to my mind when reflecting upon this scene. The national parks are infamous for their crowds in the height of summer, but fall is a splendid time to be gazing upon Saint Mary Lake. The hordes of people common in July and August are long gone, and one can truly experience some peace and quiet in one the most beautiful places on Earth. To be able to leave city life and the worries of graduate school behind and escape to Glacier is truly a privilege. As Montanans, we should embrace the parks, forests, wilderness, and other natural areas we have right in our backyards - the opportunities for reflection and recreation they afford us are invaluable.

I hope that you too will be able to experience Glacier or another wild place this fall. In case you can't make it out, I'll leave you with a few more photos in an attempt to share the experience! (Photos after the jump).

"The mountains are calling and I must go." - John Muir
A smoky morning on Saint Mary Lake
The Garden Wall
Baring Falls
Outside East Glacier
A bighorn sheep in what would be a precarious situation for most of us...

No comments:

Post a Comment