My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back: The Animals

About a week ago, I started thinking and looking back at my experiences in 2013.  I soon realized I had WAY too many experiences to put them all in one blog.  So I decided to write a series of short blogs.

But of course life got in the way and I worked several days, then paddled and packed and shared a Christmas meal, before going back to Louisiana for Hulin's 90th Birthday bash.  I stayed with one of his and my friends, Maria, along with Natalie so I was busy talking way too much.  Then Maria was sick and also doesn't have Internet so I put all my blogs on the back burner and did a lot of cooking for her so she would have an easy time eating.

This morning I woke at 2:00 A.M. and couldn't go back to sleep - probably because I got home exhausted and went to bed around 7:00P.M. So I decided to write my blog before I got to work cleaning out the old trailer and finishing packing everything into the new trailer, and then cleaning the floors.  Thankfully I noticed I am working today - thought tomorrow was New Year's eve.  AND I'm working for the next six days!

But, moving right along, lets meet up with some of my favorite animals.

First there were the bison.  They were the reason National Bison Range exists so were often in sight and sound.  The best part of the rut was even in the most visible part of the refuge, totally delighting the visitors. And the calves were so cute when they were bright orange.

Bison through the year
 Then there were the black bears, which came in several colors, including golden, cinnamon, and black. My favorite memory of bear encounters was the first day of the Talk-to-a-Biologist Program.  We had set up in the parking lot for the Bitteroot Trail.  It was National Pollinator Week so we brought nets for the kids to use to catch bees and caught some ourselves and put them in magnifiers so everyone could see a few different ones up close. One family had a good talk with us and then went up the hill behind us.  Suddenly the father called out, " did you tie these bears up here?"   We all ran up the hill in time to watch a bear climb a fence post, coming closer to us and then ambling up and over the hill.  A minute or two later, a second bear did the same thing, but instead of backing down on the near side, he managed to get all his feet on the top of the post and then jumped.  I, of course, had run up so quickly, that I hadn't grabbed my camera.

But this bear is also one that I saw while walking back to my truck one evening when I was on the Bitteroot Trail while closing down the auto tour. He came across the road in front of the truck and then grazed along the road while I took several pictures.

Two of the most spiritual hours I've ever spent was with this guy and several of his buddies. I came up on the auto tour early one morning and found them on the Highpoint Trail.  I sat down and they alternately grazed and laid down to chew their cuds, while moving ever closer, until they were only twenty feet away.

Another photographer joined me and took pictures for the last hour from a little more distant point.  As the sheep grazed away from us, we moved together and started chatting. Then we watched in both dismay and amusement as two cars of people stopped to take pictures of each other in many configurations on both sides of the road, while never noticing the bighorn sheep.  (Note to self: If you don't look, you won't see.)

 Pronghorns were often visible on the refuge. As America's fastest land animal - they can reach speeds of 60 mph - they will often graze close to the road.  One man researched the refuge  pronghorns over a period of several years and learned a lot more about their behaviors. He wrote a very interesting book based on that research.  It was probably my favorite non-fiction read of the year.

One of the things I learned in the book was that the males establish places in which to keep harems during the breeding season. The females can escape the mature males but not the young males.  So they will leave one male but then run  to to another male for protection from the harassing of the young males. While I was at Theodore Roosevelt National Park,  I realized I was seeing a male with his harem, which he keeps in a depression so other males can't see them.

As fall got closer, the elk started bugling. One group was often visible on the auto tour.  I photographed both of these males in the same evening, just a short ways apart.  This was just before they would start posturing and maybe fighting over females.

And I had to include another special animal.  The first time I visited my chiropractor, she was trying to get this kitten to eat.  Someone had found it abandoned, and the only one still alive in the litter. I taught her how to feed it and then wipe it with a damp cloth to get it to eliminate. Then I found a home for it with a staffer. I got to keep it one night between bringing it to the refuge and sending it home with the staffer.  And since I really enjoyed working with the staffer, this kitten brings back other great memories.

My next post will be reflections of my work experience last summer and here. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Early Christmas Gifts from Okefenokee Swamp

In both the days when Indians lived in and around the swamp and when they were replaced by white settlers, the swamp gave them almost everything they needed, including food, building materials, and even fibers.

Today it's gifts are more for our spirit, and Okefenokee was especially generous Christmas Eve Day. Cindy and I left the East Entrance boat launch at 7:00 A.M. and started down the day use trail in time to watch the sun come up through the left-over clouds from yesterday's storm.  But soon the sun had brushed away the gray clouds, leaving only pink and white ones for us to enjoy.

Sun coming up 

View in the day-use trail

The early light turned the ordinary into magic and everywhere there were things that needed to be remembered and shared with photos.

I was particularly enthralled with the mastery this leaf had in rolling itself up into a golden horn. I listened closely but it must be waiting to play its music Christmas day.

I love the plant called golden trumpet, or never wet. I has the most beautiful blue-green and glowing leaves. Water will not stick to it so you never see water drops on it.

Orontium aquaticum

Just the best clouds left

Birds were very active our entire trip.  I started taking pictures of red-tailed hawks about the time the sun came up.  Catbirds and American goldfinch were often within sight and hearing, but too far for pictures.  Also two flocks of cedar waxwings stayed out of camera range. Lots of great egrets and first year little blue herons were too far and two brightly lit to make good pictures. A flock of ibis obligingly flew over while I had my camera on and ready to take their picture.  And we got really close to other species later.

Part of a flock of white ibis

The best of several photos of red-shouldered hawks

Cindy dressed for our cold (fifties) weather

This combination of colors and textures was another gift

A pair of sandhill cranes let us get close to them. Cindy was in the best place, closer still. 

Another crane landed just in front of Cindy, too close for her to take out her camera
Cindy found this barred owl and then guided me to it. It patiently sat around 
for both of us to take lots of pictures during two visits. 

The patient barred owl

Christmas vignette

I must have spent ten minutes enjoying bubbles made by our paddles and trying to photograph them.  For most of them, the camera wanted to focus on the reflections of trees instead of the bubble.  This one popped just after I got this shot.

Only a few minutes after we started, it was already time to go home. I was afraid to push my shoulders, or I would have been willing to stay out all day.  As it was, I got home a little after noon.

The end - for now

Merry Christmas.  Hope you have a wonderful time with friends and family. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Chrismas in the Swamp

I wanted to visit the private entrance to Okefenokee Swamp.  It's Okefenokee Swamp Park on the north side, near Waycross, Georgia, about 38 miles from my trailer. It's a non-profit organization that exists to help the public learn about the swamp.  It provides live animals and snakes in captivity.  I had stopped by there and made a deal to be allowed to walk around in the afternoon and see whatever shows were available, then ride the train to see the Christmas lights at 6:00 P.M.

Entrance Building

I started my tour by walking to their boardwalk.  This side of the swamp is has more scrub and lower water levels.  They have to have special boats to be able to give swamp tours. But the boardwalk had more trees than does ours and all the same understory plants. I enjoyed photographing my way along it and then climbing the tower

Afternoon light on air and water

Boardwalk visitor

Rest stop on the boardwalk

Colors and textures to delight

Approaching the tower

Natural decorations

Water plants

After spending about an hour on the boardwalk and tower, I realized I would probably be late for the reptile exhibit.  I rushed back and made it to the nature center in less than ten minutes. Debbie, a volunteer that shows her passion for snakes and alligators, gave us a great talk with the help of two corn snakes and some of their progeny and  two alligators - one only one year old and one four years old.

I was the only kid that got to hold an alligator by myself

After the show, I visited the various live snake exhibits that house snakes native to the area.  I also visited the memorial to Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, which is housed in the nature center.

A glimpse into the glass-walled room of the Walter Kelly Memorial

I had time do some more wandering and found an old Camellia garden with several bushes in bloom.  I also found a gravestone for Oscar, an alligator that was full-grown in 1945 and who lived until 2007.  Volunteers spent the next two years preparing his skeleton, even including his scutes back in their original order. His skeleton now lives in a Lucite box and dominates the entrance building.

A beautiful camillia

Oscar's Skeleton

By six o'clock, it was getting dark enough for the Christmas lights to get really beautiful.  I took the first train trip and enjoyed the lights, including one of Pogo.

Deer and Star


This is a fun place to visit where you can be sure to see lots of the animals of the swamp, including live bears, an otter, lots of alligators, and snakes.  For more information, check out their web page.

This display didn't belong but made me homesick for Texas

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rails to Paddling Trails in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

The current volunteers were offered a trip over to the west side of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday.  We were going to explore some of the paddling trails on the put-in at Stephan C. Foster State Park. Eventually one will again be able to paddle from the east entrance boat ramp to the west entrance boat ramp, a distance of about  fifteen miles.  A total of two staffers and seven volunteers did the trip in three flat boats after traveling the eight-five miles by road.

When you leave the boat launch, you take a canal out to the Suwanee River.  A right turn takes you towards the swamp while a left turn lets you start down the roughly 240 mile trip to the Gulf of Mexico on the Suwanee River.

Getting ready


Map of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail
Map of  wild and scenic Suwanee River 

View right after our turn into the main channel - think this is part of Suwanee River

Map showing our route from the park to Big Water Shelter

We were on the way to check out some of the camping platforms.  We were also told we were going to have to help clear the canoe trails of impinging vegetation.  This consisted of probably less than 100 cuts with loppers. We had three young volunteers with us and they did most of the work. I did some cutting too - at least six branches.

Turn from the boat lane into the canoe trails

As soon as we turned, we  were in a cypress swamp

Workers hauling their clippings to an out-of-way place

After this hard work. out we were ready for a rest and snack at the shelter at Minnie's Lake.

One of the few day-use shelters - this on Minnie's Lake

Look sharp! In-coming supervisors

Two of a trio of young volunteers
These guys walked a huge fallen tree out to this log and then climbed up it -
I, choose not to have my picture taken here. :)
After all the boats rendezvoused at the Minnie Lake Shelter, we proceeded on to the  Big Waters Shelter for lunch.  This is eleven miles from the put- in, so makes for an easy day paddle. This was my favorite area and also seemed to be a favorite place for several alligators, thousands of white ibis, a score or so of anhingas and several herons - both little blue herons and great egrets.

The obligatory alligator shot - most were sunning after my camera died

Our boat captain, Volunteer Bruce

Arriving at Big Water Shelter

Anhinga drying its wings

Unloading for lunch

Beautiful close view

My favorite view - this from the Big Water shelter

Dinner guest

A piece of a sky full of white ibis - mostly juveniles

One of these is not like the others

I'm not sure which of the trails we paddled were old railroad trails.  But several of them were trails left from the railroad lines used to log this area in the early 1900's. But, if our civilization lasts another 450 or so years, our descendants will once again be able to see awesome mature cypress trees.

The logging operation of the Hebard Lumber Company in the Okefenokee Swamp.
Cypress tree harvest by railroad in the Okefenokee  (see MORE)

My battery died before we left the lunch platform so I can't show you Billy's Island.  But there is not much left there of the town that once existed to server the swamp loggers.  It even had the first movie theater in the county.

This was a wonderful gift from the refuge to us. Thank you Sarah and JD for taking a long day of your time to take us to this marvelous area.