Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

Facts trump Fear: A FACT-based assessment of Mountain Lions in South Dakota

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A full-grown Mountain Lion on the prowl. No…no…not my photo! This is a wild animal roaming in Yellowstone National Park. You see, like 99.999% of South Dakotans, I will never see, much less photograph, a Mountain Lion in this state. That, despite Mountain Lions seemingly posing as much of a threat to human health and safety as disease, war, famine, and pestilence combined. At least in the minds of many misguided South Dakotans.

I should just avoid the internet.  My blood pressure might be greatly improved if I were able to do that. It’s bad enough that we have Orange Hitler as our president, with a bunch of mini-Hitlers running all of the Cabinet departments. It’s bad enough that the normal news outlets that I check every day, such as the Washington Post or the New York Times, are now dominated by depressing and often downright sickening news stories about how everything that makes America, America, is now being being systematically dismantled.  What’s worse is that the same “alternative facts” political world we live in has permeated EVERY facet of American life, where fact, reason, and logic mean absolutely nothing any more.

Yesterday I was on Facebook when I came across a South Dakota “gentleman”, posing with a huge shit-eating grin on his face as he held up a dead Mountain Lion that he’d just shot and killed. OK, “gentleman” isn’t the word I want to use here, but I’m going to try to stay civil in this post.  Just the facts…so let’s call him “Gentleman Joe”.  It was a BIG mountain lion…160+ pounds…and evidently shooting a BIG Mountain Lion makes Gentleman Joe some kind of hero in the minds of many who were commenting on Facebook.  Normally I’d see something like that, roll my eyes, get a little sick to my stomach at the whole thought of it, and then move on to the next post. OK, who am I kidding…If you know me, you’d KNOW I was going to respond after seeing that.  As I I scrolled down, I noticed a manifesto from “Jim Bob” (I’m sure some relationship to Gentleman Joe, if not by blood, then by ideology).  Jim Bob was praising Gentleman Joe for the great kill, going on with his thoughts about just how much safer South Dakotans were thanks to his kill.

According to Jim Bob, the Mountain Lion horde of the South Dakota Black Hills are taking over the state. According to Jim Bob, it’s seemingly impossible to go outside in the Black Hills nowadays without the imminent threat of a Mountain Lion attack. In Jim Bob’s eyes, the proliferation of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills is akin to nuclear weapon proliferation during the Cold War, and evidently, poses just as much of a threat to humanity.  In Jim Bob world, it’s not safe to wander outside in the Black Hills. Gentleman Joe was indeed a god-damned American HERO for saving a scared South Dakota populous from the Mountain Lion scourge.

White-tailed Deer Fawn - Odocoileus virginianus

Yes, this IS my photo. I know what you’re thinking…TERRY! YOU HAVE A FAMILY TO THINK ABOUT!?!?! How could you risk so much getting this close to a dangerous killer? OK…ridiculous, you say? How much threat does a lil’ White-tailed Deer pose? SCIENCE MY FRIENDS! And the numbers don’t lie. THIS creature is MUCH more likely to kill or injure you than is a Mountain Lion. If you live in South Dakota, it’s not the creature at the top of the page that is a threat to your life.

I responded with facts, providing the TRUE story of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills, and their supposed threat to health and well-being of South Dakota’s citizens. Jim Bob, clearly not accustomed to facing the world of reality, threw a few half-hearted digital haymakers in Facebook response before slinking back to his hole.  He had nothing to respond with, no evidence to back his claims.  But as he departed the digital conversation, it was quite clearly that the barrage of facts I provided did nothing to change his mind. Those facts?

There’s been a grand total of ONE…count them…ONE confirmed Mountain Lion attack IN THE ENTIRE RECORDED HISTORY OF SOUTH DAKOTA.

Even that one event, in 2008, was an unfortunate encounter that resulted from a lion defending a kill, rather than the lion actively seeking out a human being.  Ryan Hughes was ice fishing on Sheridan Lake in March of 2008 when he headed to the shoreline and came across a Mountain Lion crouched down in the cattails, feeding on a fresh kill (thought to be a fox).  When Hughes first spotted the Mountain Lion, he was a mere 5 feet from the lion and its kill. The surprised lion reacted, dropping it’s food and scratching and biting Hughes. Hughes received minor injuries, and was treated and released from a local hospital for minor scratches and bite marks.

Well over 150 years since settlement of South Dakota, and this one, chance encounter is the ONLY MOUNTAIN LION ATTACK EVER RECORDED ON A HUMAN BEING in the state. However, according to Jim Bob, it’s absolutely essential that “heroes” like Gentleman Joe actively thin out the Black Hills Mountain Lion population.  According to fearful, small-minded men like Jim Bob, it’s a matter of public SAFETY.

I have no doubt that for tiny-penis men like Jim Bob, Mountain Lions ARE something to fear (am I still being civil? OK it’s getting borderline). It’s a scary world when you’re an insecure, weak little man-child (yeah, definitely crossing the border now).  Toting a gun into the wild and blasting away at wildlife?  It’s great for boosting those testosterone levels and boosting the confidence of weak she-men like Jim Bob (I am WAY south of the border…bye-bye civility).  But stating Mountain Lion hunting must be done as a matter of public SAFETY?

Deer Collision Risk - State Farm

From State Farm Insurance, a table of the top 5 riskiest states for car/deer collisions. If only there were some natural predator capable of saving us from the Deer threat…

One attack in over 150 years, in a state that covers over 75,000 square miles. Depending on the estimate and year, recent estimates of the number of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills have varied from 200 to 400. Generally they’ve thought to have stabilized around 250 in recent years. It’s a very healthy, strong lion population, yet despite their substantial presence in an area that’s so heavily used for recreation, there just haven’t been any attacks on human beings, much less any serious injury or fatality caused by a Mountain Lion.  That fear from tiny penis she-men isn’t limited to people in the Black Hills region.  Even here at the opposite end of the state near my town of Brandon, there have been stories of fear from the likes of Jim Bob.

While permanent breeding populations of Mountain Lions in South Dakota are almost exclusively found in the Black Hills, wandering individuals are occasionally found elsewhere in the state and region, even here in southeastern South Dakota. In 2014, there were a few sightings of a Mountain Lion just north of Brandon, where I live. A lot of the reports are rather “bigfoot” like, such as a reported brief glimpse of what might have been a Mountain Lion in the headlights of a speeding car on a highway.  But according to this piece from 2014, some in the Brandon area believed that Mountain Lions were setting up shop in the region. A quote from one of the landowners just north of where I live in Brandon?

Those spottings are just a sampling of the evidence of what Heggen said is a long-running pattern of the lions, which are solitary animals, being a nuisance in his area.

Yes, Mr. Heggen. It’s a “long-running pattern” of Mountain Lions roaming the Brandon Area.  They are a long time “nuisance” here in extreme eastern South Dakota, an area that’s 90% corn and soybeans and unlikely to EVER host a Mountain Lion for any length of time. They have indeed been spotted from time to time. I even know of a guy at my work who has seen one in the area.  But as the story above notes, in 2013 there were only 6 recorded Mountain Lion sightings in the entire state outside of the Black Hills.  Only three of those were in the eastern half of South Dakota. It’s not exactly a “long-running pattern”, and it’s a far cry from Mountain Lions being a “nuisance” in the area. More quotes from the Brandon-area story:

“But we don’t have any raccoons, skunks, possums or even pheasants running around anymore. And for a while, we didn’t even see any rabbits, although we’ve seen a few smaller ones lately,” he said.


“I’m guessing they (the lions) are eating them,” Heggen said. “They aren’t scavengers like coyotes.” He said that what he fears most is having his 5-year-old son being harmed by one of the lions in their farmyard.

Mountain Lions Killed - American West

From the Mountain Lion Foundation, a graph of the number of Mountain Lions killed by hunters in the American West from 1900 to the present day. In the last 20 years, hunters have generally killed 3,000 to 4,000 lions a year. In South Dakota in 2017, Game Fish & Parks are allowing up to 60 Lions to be killed.

Once again, let’s return to the facts…ONE CONFIRMED ATTACK IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE STATE, yet people like this are evidently fearful for the lives of their families.  There are other ridiculously speculative comments in the story, such as one time some cows were spooked by something (clearly HAD to be a Mountain Lion, right?), or that one fall he didn’t see any deer while harvesting his corn (Eegads!  More Mountain Lions!!). Please spare me the anecdotal bullshit about all the poor little animals in the area disappearing, and attributing it to roving Mountain Lions. Trust me, we have PLENTY of deer, raccoons, skunks, opossums, pheasants, and rabbits running around this part of the state.  It’s hard to drive any road in the area and not notice all the road kill on the sides of the road.

I’m perhaps being a little (ok, more than a little) harsh on people like this, but as a scientist, my biggest pet peeve in this world are fearful, ignorant human beings who ignore fact, logic, science, and reason, and instead let their innermost fears and emotions rule their lives. The vast majority of people in the Black Hills, an area that may indeed have one of the highest Mountain Lion concentrations in all of North America, will never even SEE a Mountain Lion in their lifetimes, much less have an encounter or an attack.

I also realize it’s not just the fear of men (with tiny penises) that drives this hatred of Mountain Lions, and the “lionization” (ha-ha) and hero-worship of those who kill them. No, beyond the fear, it’s INSECURITY, and their need to KILL, to express their manliness, that also drives attitudes like those of Jim Bob. That rationalization that it’s up to THEM to SAVE us from the Mountain Lion scourge…that attitude certainly plays to their insecurities, and it’s a great excuse for those who just love to go out and kill things.

On the latter point, hunters in general often have a problem with predators like Mountain Lions, for the simple fact that Lions are competition for the same kinds of prey that hunters like to target. As this story from 2010 points out, Mountain Lions likely kill just as many deer in the Black Hills as do hunters. The entire anti-Mountain Lion vibe in that part of the state simply boils down to this basic statement from this story:

Some hunters don’t like the increased competition from lions, said Mike Kintigh, GF&P regional supervisor in Rapid City.

A Mountain Lion kills a deer, that’s one less deer for hunters to kill.  In the minds of “Sportsmen” who think like this, targeting Mountain Lions is a win-win proposition.  It gives hunters the chance to kill a large, challenging animal, while at the same time reducing a major predator of game such as deer and elk.How do you combat some of the “fact-challenged” rhetoric from the anti-Lion crowd in South Dakota?  Facts don’t seem to have any impact on people like this, but as a scientist, it’s quite easy to shoot down the “logic” of these folks with some basic empirical evidence and numbers.

  • ONE — Again…in the entire history of the state, only ONE recorded attack of a Mountain Lion on a human being, and that was an obvious case of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, surprising a mountain lion on its kill.
  • THREE — In all of Eastern South Dakota in 2013, there were only three confirmed Mountain Lion sightings. No, East River paranoids, Mountain Lions are not in any way a “nuisance” or any kind of threat in the 30,000+ square miles east of the Missouri River. Let’s at least keep the argument just to the Black Hills region.
  • 250 — That’s the roughly the number of Mountain Lions currently thought to be in the Black Hills. In an area of about 5,000 square miles, that puts the number at about one Mountain Lion for every 20 square miles.  That’s a high density for anywhere in North America, much less for such a heavily used area like the Black Hills.  Yet again, despite the number of lions and the potential for interaction with the thousands of visitors and residents in the Black Hills, dangerous encounters have been non-existent.
  • 5,500 — That’s how many deer may be killed every year in the Black Hills by Mountain Lions.
  • 90,000 — Roughly the number of deer killed by hunters every year in South Dakota in the 2000s…during the exact time period when researchers believed Mountain Lion populations were at all-time highs in the Black Hills, with potentially 400 individuals present.
  • 69% — Recent success rate of hunters targeting deer in the Black Hills.  Evidently the Mountain Lions have left one or two deer for human hunters.  No, hunters, Mountain Lions are not wiping out the Black Hills deer population.
  • #5South Dakota was recently ranked as the 5th most likely state for a driver of a vehicle to strike a deer.  One in 70 South Dakota drivers on average have a claim related to a deer collision.  Perhaps a little NATURAL population control would benefit South Dakotans, particularly since the risk of any negative consequence (aka, an attack) is far less than the odds of being struck by lightning.  If only there were some SCIENCE to back this up…hmmmm……
  • 155 — That’s how many lives in the eastern United States would be SAVED over a 30-year period in the eastern United States, IF Mountain Lions were reintroduced into the area.  The number comes from a detailed socioeconomic analysis of the impacts of reintroducing Mountain Lions in the East. The savings come from the reduction in deer populations that would result from the introduction of their most effective natural predator, and the resultant reduction in deer-car collisions.  The same study found that over $2 BILLION in insurance costs would be saved over the 30-year period.

Not to let something as mundane as “science” get in the way of the thinking of people like Jim Bob, but if that many lives and insurance dollars would be SAVED in the eastern U.S. by reintroducing the Mountain Lion, how many avoided collisions in the Black Hills are a result of the presence of Mountain Lions?  How many lives have thus been SAVED by the presence of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills?  If you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, that would be XX number of lives saved, compared to…ZERO lives that that EVER been lost in the state as a result of a Mountain Lion’s activities. What? That’s all speculative you say?  Not so fast my friends, SCIENCE TO THE RESCUE AGAIN!! From the same socioeconomic analysis:

South Dakota offers a test case example of how effective this solution might be. Cougars have been slowly migrating East: They only recolonized the Black Hills in western South Dakota in 2005. When Gilbert and her team looked at mountain lion recolonization in the western part of South Dakota, they found that from 2005–2012, deer-vehicle collisions fell by 9 percent, resulting in $1.1 million in annual societal benefits for the citizens of western South Dakota. (A 9 percent reduction in seven years is roughly on par with the 22 percent reduction, which researchers think will take 30 years from recolonization.) By avoiding an estimated 158 deer vehicle collisions annually, auto insurers are already saving roughly $630,000 a year in payouts in the Black Hills.

DATA!  REAL DATA showing the decline in deer-auto accidents in South Dakota that occurred RIGHT when Mountain Lion populations were spiking in the region.

If you support Mountain Lion hunting in South Dakota, please spare us all the bullshit.  It’s NOT a safety issue.  Not to let facts spoil your storyline, anti-Mountain Lion, crowd, but from a safety standpoint, there’s absolutely no doubt that South Dakotans are safer WITH Mountain Lions than without.


If you’re going to spout off about the need to “control” Mountain Lions, skip the crap about safety.  It’s clearly about either 1) your COMPLETELY irrational fear of a beautiful creature that’s MUCH less likely to harm you than is your hair dryer, shaver, or random bolt of lightning, or 2) your desire to KILL a creature for no other reason than the enjoyment of the “sport”.

For more information, here are some of the journal and news articles mentioned in this blog post:

Winter Bison in Yellowstone

A week without blogging.  God knows there was plenty to blog about if I wanted to torture myself with the political circus that’s happening right now, but I’ve been on travel for work. Work, with a bit of play thrown in. I had a couple of days of meetings in Bozeman, Montana, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Yellowstone National Park (if you define a “hop, skip, and a jump” as a 1 1/2 hour drive).  My family and I have been in Yellowstone several times, but never in winter.  I didn’t have a lot of time, but decided to spend a day and a half in Yellowstone after my work meetings were done.

Most of Yellowstone is closed in the winter.  There’s only one road open, the road in the north part of the park between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City on the northeast entrance.  Travel in the rest of the park is by snowmobile or snow coach only.  I wanted to see the interior of the park, so arranged for a snow coach ride from Mammoth down to the Old Faithful Area, where I spent one night in the Snow Lodge.  Whirlwind tour that ended with another snow coach ride back to Mammoth, but it was certainly an incredible experience.  I’ll share more photos and stories from my trip this week, but for now, here’s a look at some of the bison that overwinter in the park.  It’s thought that about 5,000 bison are found in the park right now, a high number historically, and they certainly were found throughout the park on my short visit.  They’re such massive, majestic creatures to begin with, but there’s something about the isolation and cold of a Yellowstone winter that really made them fun to watch and photograph.

Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) and bull Bison

It was 18 below in the north part of Yellowstone when I came across three massive bull Bison resting in the snow near the side of the road. As I watched, a lone Black-billed Magpie came flying in and landed on the head of the closest bull. The big bull tolerated it for a few minutes while the magpie perched on his head, but finally he’d had enough. With a shake of his massive head, the intruder was sent flying off and the bull resumed his nap. The Magpie in a great pose, the massive bison showing great detail in the fur and horns, and the warm steamy breath all contribute to what instantly became one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.

Bison portrait in the snow

A little younger bison, not looking too impressed with the idiot in the car taking its photo.

Bull Bison foraging in snow

Another massive bull, using that massive head to push the snow aside and reach the grass below. With what’s been a very snowy winter in Yellowstone, even the big bulls like this were seemingly struggling to move through the snow at times.

Young bison

A younger bison, taking a break from feeding to strike a pose for the camera.

Goat Heaven

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

One of the larger Mountain Goats, moving through the heavily flowered alpine meadows above Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Click on this or any other photo for a closer view.

I’m still catching up on processing photos from the summer, including some from our vacation time in Glacier National Park in August. Glacier was busy, so busy that frankly it lessened my enjoyment of the Park.  The Going-to-the-Sun Road is certainly a huge attraction in Glacier, and deservedly so, given the spectacular views along its winding path.  However, there’s so much traffic on a busy summer day that it’s very difficult to find a place to pull over and park.  Most of the roadside stops were full, limiting opportunities to get out and hike. When we reached Logan Pass, a high point in the middle of the route with a visitor’s center and hikes, the entire lot was full, and cars were parked along the side of the road for at least half a mile in either direction from the parking lot.  We were admittedly a bit dejected trying to find a place to park, when we decided we were going to ‘reboot’ the day, drive down to the east end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and take one of the shuttle buses back to the Logan Pass area.

It was a very good decision.  The shuttles can be a bit unreliable (as we found when trying to go back down to our car, having to wait for almost an  hour for a shuttle), but they freed us from any worries about having to park.  At Logan Pass there are a few hiking options, and one we decided to do went up through a beautiful alpine meadow. There’s a boardwalk that goes up for much of the length of the trail, and given the madhouse at the visitor’s center itself, we were expecting a trail that was elbow-to-elbow in tourists.  However, one thing we’ve learned in all our visits to National Parks…people are lazy!  A short stroll off the beaten path can often give you some solitude.  This wasn’t solitude, but it was manageable in terms of jostling with other tourists.

Logan Pass, Glacier National Park

A view of one of the alpine meadows at Logan Pass. The flowers were truly incredible, although in some spots the dark burgundy flowers were being thinned out by the grazing goats!

The walk itself was incredibly beautiful. The high alpine meadows were packed with blooming flowers of several different kinds.  Combined with the lush greenery and spectacular mountain views, and it was truly one of our favorite hikes on the vacation.  The trail was somewhat open-ended, with no “must see” destination that marked the end of the trail, so we just kept walking until we started to get tired.

After quite some time heading up the trail, we looked up the path and in the distance, saw some hikers seemingly moving off the path to make way for…something.  At first it was hard to tell because of the distance, but soon the small, distant white blobs on the path became recognizable…Mountain Goats!  There was a small group of about 8 Mountain Goats that were headed down the mountain towards the flowered fields, and they were bound and determined to take the path of least resistance…literally!  The goats seemingly put their heads down and kept coming down the path, hikers-be-damned.  They were still quite a ways up the path from us when the moved into the flowery fields and began to feed.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

The youngest of the small herd of Mountain Goats, pausing to sniff the flowers. Well, actually, right after this he ate all the flowers off this plant.

We continued up the path until we were in very close proximity.  They weren’t shy, obviously being quite used to hikers on the path.  They were feeding heavily in the gorgeous alpine meadows, and seemed to especially have an affinity for a plant with deep red flowers (that’s about as far as my flower identification skills take me!).  The small group included a couple of young goats that were obviously just born that year, as well as a pair of larger adults that appeared to be dominant. The goats peacefully fed while the handful of hikers that were at that height stood or sat on the path, thrilled to see them at such close range.

As with the previous post about the Grizzly Bears of Banff, it was the Mountain Goats of Glacier that were another true highlight of the trip!

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanusMountain Goat - Oreamnos americanusMountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

Banff Grizzly Bears

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

A big Grizzly near the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park. This was actually a rarity, where one of the bears we saw would look towards us on the road. For the most part, they were too busy feeding on berries to worry about observers. Click on this photo or any other photo on this post to see a larger photo version.

In continuing the theme of “summer vacation pics”…the end point of our driving vacation this summer was Banff and the surrounding area in Alberta.  My wife and I had been there once before, but we’d never been there as a family. We spent several days stationed in Banff itself, with day trips to several spots in Banff National Park, and a trip up towards Jasper on the Icefields Parkway.  The highlight of the the trip, however?

Grizzly Bears!  We’ve been in Yellowstone several times.  We’ve been to Glacier National Park two times now (after this trip).  As a family we have vacationed in Alaska, and I myself have been in Alaska several other times.  In all these trips, we’ve on occasion seen bears. One on this trip, maybe one or even two on another trip, etc.  Coming across a bear, be it a Black Bear or Grizzly Bear, is a treat even in these areas that are known for bears. They’re just not very common to begin with, and seeing one during the day in visible range is a special treat.  That’s what made our trip to Banff so special.  We saw SO many bears that on one day in particular, we almost were expecting to see bears around every bend!

On our last trip to Banff many years ago, we saw wildlife (Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Elk, etc.), but no bears.  However, we knew this year might be different, as before leaving on vacation, we had read many stories about the banner year around Banff for buffalo berries.  Buffalo berries are a favorite for bears, and tend to grow at forest edges and clearings…including along roadways in Banff National Park. We had read that the bears in the area were all down in the lowlands, gorging on berries, and that we might have a good chance of seeing one.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

Berry time! A good view of another Grizzly, and the berries that had them so far down in the lowlands of the park.

We saw one!  Then two…then three…then four…until we had seen seven bears in one day!!  Seven bears on August 2nd, all along the Bow Valley Parkway near Banff. The Bow Valley Parkway itself is a really pretty drive, going through dense forest and also occasionally giving you a good view of the mountains. The day before, we had been in the Lake Louise area, and had a wonderful time on a long, 6- mile hike up from the lake to a rustic teahouse.  A beautiful day on August 1st, but WOW, the people!  In the heart of summer, it’s very difficult to even find a parking spot near Lake Louise, and the area around the lake and hotel itself are incredibly busy.  Thus, when starting out on the Bow Valley Parkway on August 2nd, we expected quite a few people.  We were wrong.  The parkway was relatively quiet, so we drove very slow, scanning the forest edges for wildlife.  The edge of the forest next to the road had many fruiting buffalo berry bushes, and it certainly SEEMED like the perfect place to find browsing bears.

It was.  It didn’t take long before we saw a mini “bear jam” up ahead.  Given the quiet traffic that day, the “bear jams” typically only consisted of a car or two, and much of the time we also were by ourselves as we watched a bear.  As we slowly approached the first two cars we had seen pulled over on the edge of the road, we wondered…is it a Grizzly?  A Black Bear? Or something else?

The first bear we saw was a beautiful, large grizzly.  At first, he was perhaps 10 yards back in the forest, making it difficult to see him well, even with binoculars that we had.  It didn’t take long before the binoculars were relegated to the back seat for most of the rest of the day though, as soon the first Grizzly strolled out of the forest and started gorging on buffalo berries, just 15 yards away or so.  With all our previous vacations in “bear country”, this was by far our closest, best look at a Grizzly, so we pulled over and enjoyed watching him feed for a while.  Finally we reluctantly pulled back onto the road to continue our journey up Bow Valley Parkway.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

Slurp! Often we’d just see a bear plopped down on his back haunches while he/she gorged on berries.

It wasn’t a long journey!  After a mere 200 yards or so, we saw movement in the brush on the side of the road.  Another Grizzly!  For the most part the Grizzlies we saw were totally oblivious to activity on the road. They would walk up to a loaded buffalo berry bush, strip the berries with their snouts in big bunches, and pretty much strip the entire bush before moving to the next one.  On occasion they would glance over towards the road, but they had one thing on their minds…berries!  Their close proximity and casual attitude towards observers led to some great photo opportunities.

In one stretch of less than a mile, we ended up seeing 4 different Grizzly Bears.  As we continued up Bow Valley Parkway, we found two more Grizzlies, and one Black Bear who had a couple of cubs.  We also found a couple of Grizzly Bears the next day, with at least one of the two being a “repeat” from the day before.  Some of the Grizzlies had ear tags, and Bear 134 is one that we came across multiple times during our stay in Banff. It was enjoyable not only seeing and photographing the bears from close range, but also looking them up on the internet!  A search of terms like “Bear 134 Banff” would often lead to stories of an individual bear’s exploits, either during the 2016 season, or in previous seasons.

It was a special trip.  We were definitely spoiled in terms of seeing bears, and I truly doubt that we’ll ever experience so many wild bears in one day again.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis


Visit to Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Wild Horses - Teddy Roosevelt National Park

A pair of wild horses standing on a ridge top. This was with my long 400mm lens, and this was as close as the wild horses were going to allow our approach. It was still wonderful seeing a group of about a dozen, roaming in a valley bottom. Click on the photos for a larger view.

In addition to not doing much birding or photography this summer, I also failed to process photos from the relatively few photo opportunities I DID have.  That includes all the photos from our family vacation at the end of July into the beginning of August.  We LOVE visiting National Parks, and this summer we decided to do a driving trip to visit three: 1) Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, 2) Glacier National Park in Montana, and 3) Banff National Park in Alberta.  We’d been to the latter two before, but just once each time.  Banff was the end point of the trip, and in my mind was going to be the highlight of the vacation, while Glacier is a place we felt we “missed out” on during our first visit, because the “going-to-the-sun” scenic road was unexpectedly closed (still snow in early July!).

Teddy Roosevelt National Park? Eh.  I admit I wasn’t too excited about it before we left, but it was kind of on the way, and my wife and son hadn’t seen it before. We ended up staying a couple of nights in Medora, North Dakota, at the edge of the park, and spending 2 days in the park itself.  It ended up being one of the highlights of the trip!!

Lazuli Bunting - Passerina amoena

A male Lazuli Bunting stopping for a moment in a field of flowers. They are SUCH beautiful birds, and I have very few photos of them, so was quite happy to have this guy stay just long enough for a couple of photos.

Banff is gorgeous. Glacier National Park is gorgeous.  But my GOD, the people!  In Glacier National Park, we got to do going-to-the-sun road, but with the road jammed with tourists, it was almost impossible to find a place to park and walk on most of the route.  In Banff National Park, you can certainly find quieter spots if you get off the road and hike, but Lake Louise? The town of Banff itself?  The glacier on the way up to Jasper?  You sometimes feel like you’re in Central Park or some other park in the middle of a metropolis.  SO many people, which for me, takes away much of the joy of places like that.

And that, my friends, is one reason why Teddy Roosevelt was such a gem to me.  Let’s start with where we stayed, in Medora.  I had a bit of an issue with the company that seemed to OWN most of Medora, as they ran many of the restaurants, lodging, and tourist traps in town.  But Medora itself?  It’s tiny, and even in the middle of the tourist season, it was uncrowded, relaxing, and may I say, damn enjoyable for a town that could easily be turned into a gaudy tourist trap.  You can comfortably walk and see every site in town, walk to visit any restaurant in town.  There are a few shops that you’d deem typical for a summer tourist town, such as candy shops, ice-cream shops, upscale art…but they’re not crowded and don’t overwhelm the natural charm of the place.

The park itself is lovely. Coming from South Dakota, we knew Teddy Roosevelt National Park is sometimes described as a “greener” version of South Dakota’s Badlands.  That’s an apt description, because the topography and geological features do look similar, but with quite a bit more grassland and other vegetation in comparison with the Badlands. It really was quite lovely, and for someone trying to get away from humanity (one of my goals on any vacation!), it’s remarkably quiet.  We walked many trails during our two days in the park, and typically we’d only run into one or two other hiking groups, if we met any at all. I’m a sucker for open spaces and grasslands, and Teddy Roosevelt certainly has plenty of that to offer, in addition to the rugged terrain in many places.

Prairie Dog - Teddy Roosevelt National Park

An alert prairie dog, wondering whether to wait us out, or dart into his hole. I LOVE walking through prairie dog towns in the Dakotas. They’re often so rich with wildlife. Teddy Roosevelt offers several locations where you can see these guys.

With just 2 days in the park, I really didn’t get a chance to get away and do any devoted birding, but it was still a very interesting place from a wildlife perspective.  Bison roam through much of the park, and there was a time or two where we had to detour or pause on a hike to give some nearby Bison the spaced they need.  Pronghorn and deer were commonly seen, and more often than not, when you scanned the sky around you, you’d see soaring hawks.  Prairie dog towns are always a favorite spot for mine, not for the prairie dogs themselves (although they are darned cute), but for the wildlife that’s often attracted to them. In one spot we saw a badger loping through a prairie dog town (much to the chagrin of the prairie dogs), and we also saw coyotes on a couple of occasions. There aren’t many in the park, but one attraction from a “wildlife” standpoint are the few dozen wild horses that roam the park.  We did see about a dozen of them at one point, but they were very skittish and didn’t allow people to get within half a mile of them.  I did manage to get a few nice photos of a pair standing on a ridge, before they galloped away.

If you’re looking for a relaxing, quiet, beautiful, and UNCROWDED vacation spot…Teddy Roosevelt National Park really turned out to be a gem in my book!  It goes to show that the “big name” parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, or Banff up in Canada certainly are majestic, but a visit to the lesser-known National Parks is definitely worth  your time as well.

Rattlesnakin! Family fun for all…

Prairie Rattlesnake photo - Crotalus viridis

A Prairie Rattlesnake, curled up in a weedy spot right next to the burrow of a prairie dog.

I had never seen a rattlesnake before until 4 years ago.  I knew Prairie Rattlesnakes were found in much of South Dakota, but not in the eastern part of the state where I live.  A fellow birder posted something that fall, about not only finding some nice birds on a prairie dog town (e.g., Sprague’s Pipits and Burrowing Owls), but also noted that after a cool fall night, there were rattlesnakes out sunning on that warm fall day.

Rattlesnakes!  An 8-year old son!  What better father-son bonding activity than going “rattlesnakin’!!” I am SUCH a good father!  First actually, we went fishing in the morning on the Missouri River, below Oahe Dam by Pierre.  However by noon, with a nice warm sun starting to heat things up, we grabbed lunch and headed for that same prairie dog town. It didn’t take long to find sunning rattlesnakes.  They hang out in prairie dog burrows (presumably abandoned ones), coming out to sun during warm fall days.  On one prairie dog mound were 4 rattlesnakes, 3 quite large ones, and one very small one that couldn’t have been more than 12 inches long.  Great fun had by all!  Photos!  A son that, well…wasn’t quite enamored as I was in seeing poisonous snakes up close and personal.

Funny…my wife and sister also both gave me a bit of grief for PURPOSELY taking our son out to see poisonous snakes.  Silly family…they don’t know good clean fun when they see it!

Prairie Rattlesnake - Crotalus viridis

Another Prairie Rattlesnake, and this guy was a big boy. Probably the biggest I’ve seen.

I hadn’t been back out “rattlesnakin” again until this past week.  No, I didn’t bring my son this time, but I did the same thing…fish during the cool morning hours, and then look for rattlesnakes as the sun warmed the ground at the prairie dog town.  Rattlesnakes weren’t out in force like they were on that fall day of four years ago, but there were still a handful to be found, including probably the largest rattlesnake I’ve seen.

So, if you’re sitting at home on a warm fall day, wondering where to have some good clean family fun, don’t forget!  Rattlesnakin’….a family activity you ALL can enjoy!!

Playing “Jenga” with nature

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga...take one piece away you don't know what will happen.

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga…take one piece away you don’t know what will happen.

You never know what will happen when you remove one piece of the puzzle.  Can it survive for a little while longer, albeit in a weakened state?  Or will it all come crashing down when that one piece gets removed?

Yes, I could be talking about the game of “Jenga”, something many of us have played.  But in this case I’m talking about nature.  In the journal Science Advances, research was just published that discusses a link between hawk populations in the southwestern U.S. and breeding success of Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  One wouldn’t immediately think there was much of a link between the two species.  Hummingbirds are far too small and quick for most hawk species to deal with.  They likely couldn’t capture them, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be more than a mouthful.  So how are the species linked?

As the paper discusses, there are actually three bird species who interact to affect nesting success of the hummingbird.  In addition to the Black-chinned Hummingbird, the study looked at Cooper’s Hawks and Mexican Jays.  What they found was that nesting success was much higher for the hummingbirds when they nested very close to Cooper’s Hawk nests.  The Cooper’s Hawks don’t feed on the hummingbirds, but they ARE a threat to Mexican Jays, and Mexican Jays will readily eat hummingbird eggs and young if they get a chance.  In one case, after Cooper’s Hawks left one nesting location, the researchers immediately saw Mexican Jays move in and decimate all hummingbird nests in the area.

Jenga…ala Mother Nature.  That’s what so scary when human beings start to interfere in natural systems.  One of the most publicized impacts of the removal of one species from a system is the Yellowstone ecosystem, before and after the reintroduction of wolves.  It was expected that the reintroduction would impact ungulate populations in the area, but it soon became apparent just how far-reaching an impact wolves have on the ecosystem.  Without wolves, elk and deer browsed freely in lowlands, resulting in nearly all young aspen trees to be browsed to the ground.  Aspen habitat all but disappeared in the park, but with the reintroduction of wolves, that habitat is now being reborn.  With increased aspen came more beavers.  With more aspen habitat and beaver ponds came an influx of more songbirds and other species that use those habitat.  With more wolves, there were fewer coyotes, which meant more small mammals and an increase in numbers of red fox, eagles, and ravens.

All due to the removal of one species.

Be it hawks in the Southwest or wolves in Yellowstone, the removal of one key species can have cascading impacts on the entire ecosystem.  The same certainly can be true in the “reverse” case, where a new, exotic species is introduced into the system.  As a scientist, it’s fascinating to see the incredible impacts humans have on ecosystems, both through how they manage the landscape, and in how they manage the wildlife within that landscape. As just a human being…it also can be pretty depressing to see how we negatively impact so many ecosystems.

Back in the swing? Chorus Frog

Chorus Frog - Pseudacris triseriata

A tiny Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata), hanging out in front of our house, and just begging to get his photo taken.

August…good riddance.  It’s been a downer of a month.  I’ve had all kinds of eye issues this month, and just haven’t felt up to getting out and taking photos.  Heck, I haven’t even felt like opening my eyes!  It turns out my really dry eye turned into a very nasty scratch across my cornea.  Not only did it hurt like hell, but everything was so blurry in that eye that I couldn’t even think about photography.

Thankfully the eye is getting better, and I have some treatment options that seem to be working for the eyes overall (crossing fingers that continues).  I still haven’t felt like going out with the camera, but maybe tonight was a sign I should start doing so again.  I went for a family walk with the dogs, and when we returned home, my son said “Frog!”.  Not really expecting frogs in our front driveway, I thought he was joking around or something, but then he pointed out the tiny little Chorus Frog that was hanging out on the edge of the driveway.

Chorus Frog - Pseudacris triseriata

A side view of the cute little guy.

I’ve pretty much just tried the macro lens on insects and a few flowers, so a tiny frog was a nice option to try something new.  This guy was an inch long at most, a perfect size for some macro shots.  He wasn’t really in much of a mood to move or anything, so I was able to lay down on the driveway in front of him and take a wide variety of shots.

A sign perhaps, that I should get my lazy, bad-eyed self back outside and start taking photos again?   Nah…I don’t believe in that kind of stuff, but ANYTHING that made me grab the camera again is a good thing.

Mountain Lion sighting near Sioux Falls, and “protecting” people from imagined dangers

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A Mountain Lion lounging in a tree. If such a sight is recorded in South Dakota, the Mountain Lion itself is likely to be sentenced to death, no matter its location or behavior. Photo credit.

We arrived back from our vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Monday.  It seems that while we were gone, there was a bit of excitement in the neighborhood!  While talking to a neighbor, he told me about a neighbor across the street who was QUITE surprised to see a Mountain Lion lounging in a tree in his back yard!  We live in extreme eastern South Dakota, only a few miles from both Minnesota and Iowa.  South Dakota DOES have a healthy Mountain Lion population in the Black Hills, where biologists typically estimate that a few hundred are around.  Black Hills Mountain Lions are known to wander widely, with tagged animals found far from the Black Hills and far from South Dakota.

However, in our part of the state near Sioux Falls, the landscape is dominated by corn and soybeans.  There are certainly plenty of deer around that would interest a mountain lion, but there isn’t a lot of natural habitat around.  The only forested areas in the area are typically riparian zones.  The potential attraction for the mountain lion seen in our neighborhood?  We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park along the Big Sioux River that features a lot of burr oak, cottonwood, and other trees along the river.  Turkeys and deer both abound in the park, but it’s a small oasis of habitat sitting in a vast landscape of cropland.  It’s also not all that large a park, covering a thin strip along the river for less than 2 miles.  From a long-term habitat standpoint, it’s simply not a location that’s going to hold a population of Mountain Lions for any sustained length of time.

The park is quite popular with campers, joggers, bikers, hikers, dog walkers, etc.  There’s a very nice paved path through the park that connects with other paths in the city of Brandon itself.  There are also other unpaved paths that people frequently use.  The number of people using the park also make it quite unlikely that any Mountain Lion would attempt to stay for any prolonged period of time. The number of people using the park ALSO will likely be used as a reason for Game Fish & Parks to “remove” the Mountain Lion should it happen to stick around.

There has NEVER been a recorded case of a Mountain Lion attacking a human being in South Dakota.  NEVER.  Despite that, they are treated as an extreme danger.  The story linked to here is the typical reaction when any Mountain Lion is found anywhere close to humans in the state.  The Mountain Lion is killed, period.  In the story I linked to, the lions were near Keystone,.  Keystone is in the heart of the Black Hills, and thus, the heart of Mountain Lion country in South Dakota.  The lions were clearly within their normal habitat, but were still “removed” (killed).

Mountain Lions are quite common in the Black Hills, but are rarely every seen.  Being shy and staying away from people is certainly a positive for a Mountain Lion in the state, as just being SEEN is an offense punishable by death for a Mountain Lion in South Dakota.  The Keystone story above has been repeated many, many times in the state, with Lions being shot and killed whenever they happen to be found near people.  That’s especially true outside of the Black Hills.  In South Dakota it’s such a rare sight to see a Mountain Lion outside of the Black Hills.  If one IS seen, people immediately freak out and assume it’s a danger, despite, again, the fact that there has NEVER been an instance of a Mountain Lion causing harm to a human being in the state.  While birding in the Yankton area several years ago, I heard a blood-curdling “scream” in a forested area along the Missouri River, a sound I know came from a Mountain Lion.  I certainly never reported it, knowing what would happen to the animal if authorities were alerted to its presence.

I haven’t heard neighbors say whether the mountain lion found here has been seen again.  Frankly, I hope it has moved on and WON’T ever be seen again, just from the standpoint of the animal’s own safety and well-being.  A “seen” Mountain Lion in South Dakota is usually a CONDEMNED Mountain Lion.

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