Category Archives: Travels in the West

Some Natural History and Tips : Denali National Park

Ahoy Readers!

So, this is actually a post that has been a long time in the making. I’ve been back-logged a bit on posting this one.  Did you know that’s why the call a blog a blog? Blog just stands for Back-logged. Anway, bad joke. So here’s the background on this post. A majority of the pictures and tales come from Kass’ and my journey up here in August. We visited the park then as part of a trip to the Anchorage region and is the part that I’ve meant to write about for some time. The other part of the descriptions and pictures come from a field trip I took to Denali the last weekend in September to observe moose rutting behavior. And then, to top it all there’s some events observed outside of the park that were cool and noteworthy, so there’s some pictures of that too. So, here we go!

When Kass and I got to Denali we were in for a big surprise: you cannot pass mile 15 of the park road with a personal vehicle. I had no idea a national park would restrict access like that! So, the only resaonable way to get in is on the tour buses and those trips had varying different lengths along the road. We decided to take the Wonder Lake bus tour which was 10 HOURS on the bus, but did bring us into the park almost as far as you can go. I will just say now that, although a 10 hour bus ride is long, and we didn’t get to stop at destinations long enough to truly appreciate them, we both agreed that we were happy we made it all the way into the park even as just ‘tourists’. I certainly have plans to return there with a bike and trek  the entire park road. Hopefully whenever ‘summer’ comes here again, not likely until July.

So, without further ado, here’s a short natural history, based on my learning, of Denali National Park. I will be grouping the different aspects of the park visit in the blog rather detailing each mile. 

MOUNTAINS

Of course there is one really big reason to go to Denali national park, and that’s to see Mt. McKinley – also known as Denali. Denali is  Koyukon Athabaskan for “The High One”. It is the largest peak in North America and rises up over 18,000 feet from the base to its summit. The rise of Denali is what makes it so extraordinary. However, not a large percentage of the visitors in the park each year actually see the peak as it hides behind clouds often. We actually found a day when the sun broke through the clouds and we could see it! For us it was a fortunate break, as the weather had been cloudy the days preceding our trip, was cloudy most of the day we were on the trip (except for the 1 break) and was cloudy after that. I guess we were meant to see it!

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Denali. We were fortunately to see it!! Here you can still tell that there is a fair amount of haze around the summit. We are still well over 50 miles from the mountain at the time of this picture.

Of course there are other mountains within Denali National Park as well. One of the other noteable ranges were the polychrome mountains. The Polychrome mountains are a part of  The Cantwell Volcanics and  include basalt and rhyolite flows (Wikipedia),There were quite colorful. Although, I must say that the panorama could do them more justice. There are many, many good pictures of the colors of these mountains online. If you are interested be sure to check those out! Think rainbows + mountains.  I guess you’ll have to see them for yourself!

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The polychrome mountains of Denali National Park. They are aptly named!

Of course the look and feel mountains can change rapidly! Here are pictures from September 29th in the Savage river valley area while I was there for a field trip. Snow covered mountains were layered in fog and clouds. The reds in the front of the mountains was stunning. While we stood there snow started to fly and it continued throughout the night into Sunday morning. They closed the park for the season due to the snow on Sunday, so we were fortunate to get in when we did!

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A closeup of just one of the peaks in the Savage River Valley area. This peak was shot at 300 mm.
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A changed landscape! The mountains were shrouded in fog and covered in snow. A big change from just a month prior!

MEGA FAUNA

Denali national park is renowned for its wildlife. Part of that renown derives directly from the restrictions placed on tourist traffic- I should quit my griping about long bus rides, as it still beats the throngs of buffalo watchers at Yellowstone National Park. Wildlife in the region thrive due to intact ecosystems and no hunting pressure within the park. Many individuals leave the park boundaries, and can be pursued and harvested at that time. The park has ‘the big four’ of mega-fauna and at any time they may stick their head above a ridge, so observation is essential. Actually it was one of the entertaining parts of the bus ride because we were instructed to yell “STOP!” if we saw anything big. Imagine yelling out bingo because it some ways it was competitive like bingo (who could see it first) and was just as enjoyable. The caveat of the ‘stop’ theory is our bus driver was an older gentleman, named John, and he couldn’t hear well, especially over the diesel bus. So people in the back really had to let him know. Once we were stopped it was an inching game and John did his best to take directions from multiple, camera wielding bus riders looking to line up that ‘perfect’ shot. The rules of the game were to call out anything interesting, but most of the riders there wanted to see moose, dall sheep, caribou or bears. We were fortunate to get all of them. The first of the big four that we came upon was the mighty bull moose. Moose in the park are big due to their protection, and these guys pictured here are no exception! At this time of year the moose were gathering in the valleys for the rutting season.

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A big bull moose at Denali National Park. Look at those paddles!
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Just because they are big doesn’t mean that cannot hide! If you were walking on the ground in the Park I’m not sure that you’d be able to see this one!

Like I mentioned these moose were here with a purpose and that purpose was to meet other males and then either scare them off, or if that doesn’t work fight with them. I was fortunate enough to be back in the park during the rutting season and observing bull moose from a distance up and down the Savage River Valley. I got to observe several key and cool behaviors of moose including:

  1. Territorial displays – male moose will stand face to face in an old west shoot-out style and sway their heads back and forth. If one backs down at this point there is no harm done. It’s the least aggressive way to win the cows for a harem
  2. Rut pits – male moose dig pits with their front feet and then pee in them and rub other hormones into them. Did you ever wonder why male moose have the long beard in front under their chin? When they get into the rut pit they make sure to splash plenty of ‘unpleasants’ onto the beard and then will rub those acquired smells on the cows for their approval, effectively basting them. Cows will also sniff the rut pits and it is suspected that they can tell the maturity of a bull based on  the hormones that it puts out
  3. Harems- we saw two different bulls with harems. A harem is a group of cows that will breed with the bull that has won them. The bull may lose the harem to another bull at any time up until the cows are bred. Once a bull starts into the rut it will barely sleep or eat and may loose up to 600 pounds in some of the larger bulls. For instance, my professor talked about an instance where a bull was known to start at 1500 pounds and shrink to 900. WOW! 1-800-94-JENNY anyone?

For better or for worse we saw many of these moose from far away – so much for wildlife photographer of the year awards on this trip! However, I did take this one set of a video of a distant, large, bull moose chasing after 2 cows in his harem. I think it gives pretty good perspective on how far away we were and also of some of the scenery. Of note in this video: NEVER TRY TO OUTRUN A MOOSE. I couldn’t believe how fast they were able to travel!!

The next in the list of the big four were caribou. We got some really great looks at these animals. I have actually learned some pretty interesting things about caribou. Did you know the females are one of the few (or only??) ungulates to grow antlers? Females actually use them to fend off other females from feeding grounds when calves are present. Lichen, their main source of food, can be a commodity. So it’s important to protect what you have! The caribou herds were just starting to travel for the wintering grounds when we were on our trip.

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Here is one of the big caribou that crossed our path on the voyage to wonder lake.
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Here is yet another one of the big caribou that crosse dour path. Admire those shovels, but also admire that vast landscape behind him!

Another one of the big four in the park were the dall sheep. These sheep were actually hunted to near extinction in history past, so it’s great to see them back in large numbers! It’s important to look waaay up for these guys, as they are mountain extraordinaires and are renowned for their ability to cling to small ledges and make dareing dashes up near impossible slopes. They are always shock white and are known for their impressive horn curls.  We didn’t get too close to these sheep, so use your imagination a bit on those white dots you see! At least one of them is the ram. Can you tell?

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To round off the big four I would be reminisce if I didn’t talk about the bears! We got to observe bears two times while on the trip. The first time was very close, and you’ll see that below. It was a lone bear, probably a male, that was foraging on berries and anything else in the shrubs. He meandered up the draw before walking mere yards behind the bus. It’s really interesting being in the bus beause the wildlife has less tendency to ‘see’ you. They certainly see the bus, but that doesn’t really spook them. Bears are a little different though, I don’t think they give a d*** either way.  You know what I mean? :p.  The second bear sighting was at a distance, but a mother and two cubs were running around and playing with each other on a hillside.

In regards to bears a brown bear is the same as a grizzly bear and both of those are actually the same as a Kodiak Brown Bear. Kodiak’s are renowned for their large size (males in the range of 1500 pounds) but their size is entirely driven by the rich fish diet they get in the Kodiak Island region. If those same bears were transplanted to Denali they would shrink to Denali size- about 700 pounds in big males.

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Here’s Mr Bruin. This brown bear was feeding on berries and shrubs behind our bus. He was described as a ‘fairly small male’. Looks biggish to me!
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More more look with a little different angle at the grizzly bear.

Not all of the mammals in Denali are huge. We did come across this fox who was actively hunting along the road. I think he was using the bus to scare up birds, crafty fox! I didn’t see him snag any, but he came awfully close a couple of times. His behavior was to pad along in front of the bus and as birds came out of the bushes to pursue him. He then jumped into a draw which is where he was photographed here, ears perked and still fully on the hunt.

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This crafty red fox was using our bus as a diversion when hunting birds.

BIRDS

One of the predominant birds in Alaska are the grouse and the ptarmigan. They all can be a bit hard to tell apart. Once you get the grouse vs the ptarmigan you still need to figure out which of the ptarmigan you are looking at, which can be nearly impossible. I’ve found this resource from the AK fish and game. Use it to help me compare the pictures below, and we’ll see if you think I got them right. (http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/hunting/smallgamehunting/pdfs/alaska_grouse_ptarmigan.pdf) I won’t put any captions on the photos other than numbers and you can look up the answers below.

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# 1 : What is it? “answer” below
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# 2 : answers below
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# 3 : answers below

So here’s the answers as far as I can tell. # 1 is a willow ptarmigan. It’s characterized by red breat and those big ptarmigan feet (which you can’t see). She’s all ruffled up here. I know she’s a she because she was surrounded by her chicks, who were about half grown. Willow ptarmigan are VERY hard to discern from rock ptarmigan. In this case I’m going sheerly on the habitat that she was found in, and I’m not sure if that’s valid or not.  #2 is a spruce grouse, not a ptarmigan at all! . Did you guess correctly on #3? If  you got # 2 then you should get # 3! Spruce grouse! I threw you a little double there 🙂

Another one of the birds in the park is the magpie. They are one of my favorite birds for their curious nature and natural intelligence. When I jumped out of the car this one and several others came pretty close looking for handouts. I wasn’t too impressed by that! But was it was nice to have him close for the pictures. They really are a colorful bird, in the right light that tail lights up green as a ‘go light’!

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This magpie came looking for handouts, none to found from this non-wildlife-feeing-photographer though! 🙂

The last bird I wanted to highlight was the white fronted goose. This bird was actually a ‘lifer’ ( I hadn’t seen one before) so it was pretty special! These geese had managed to raise a family on this lake for the summer. I bet they didn’t hang around too much longer after we left the park. Those lakes would have been frozen soon!

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White-fronted goose in Denali National Park

PLANTS

Denali was one of my first exposures tundra plants. I actually don’t have to much to say about these plants because I really don’t know too much about their ecology. Maybe the pictures will tell enough! The best I can give is the name, if you are ready and know some ecology fill me in!

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Gentian.
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Mountain Avens.
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Bearberry

IT’S NO WONDER IT’S CALLED WONDER!

We finally reached wonder lake at mile 84 (I think, or was it 87?) Anway, it was incredible! The lake stretched out before us and was very calm. Kass set about picking berries and I spent my time hunting for birds and pictures to take. I’m looking forward to getting back to Wonder Lake on my own accord and spending some time there. Hopefully the days can all be be like this one was! This will conclude the Denali section. But a few extra pictures are below from different destinations and species. Thanks for reading everyone!!

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BLOG EXTRAS

So the rest of this blog is just dedicated to some nice Alaskan scenery that is found between Denali and Anchorage but that don’t really fit into a blog entry. I will include a little commentary here and there:

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Hi-bush cranberries are a common plant in the woods of Alaska. These tart berries are editlble, and the taste improves as the weather cools off and they freeze at night. They have a pretty big pit, so be ready to spit!
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Beyer’s Lake State Park. Can’t go wrong with these views!
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I am always fascinated by mushrooms exploding out of the undergrowth This one apparently had to push pretty hard to make it through this thick moss.
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I feel I captured this red squirrel at just the right time at Beyer’s Lake State Park. He was chomping on this pinecone and had a see strung across his write. He looks like he’s saying SHOO! Get out of here!
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I was struck by the royal, deep purple of this unknown flower along Beyer’s Lake. Also, thanks to Reader Justin Olnes for identifying this flower monkshood (Aconitum)!!
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Beyer’s Lake State park and a view from the end of the lake. I loved the purples and the red of the rose-hips!
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While in the Anchorage area Kass and I were lucky to observe a strong fallout of warbler. There were feeding in amongst the rocks of shoreline of the ocean (which had a rapidly ascending tide) and also in the fireweed which was common. The combination of fireweed with the birds is hard to forget! I believe (but cannot say with absolute certainty) that this is an orange-crowned warbler. Can anyone confirm??
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A moody day at Ektulna lake along the way to Anchorage.
Lets not beat around the bush here. Do bears shit in the woods? Yes. yes they do.
Lets not beat around the bush here. Do bears shit in the woods? Yes. yes they do. More interesting was to see the strong dietary influence of berries in this scat! It was found directly in the middle of the board walk around Beyer’s Lake

Travels to the West: Chapter 3: 06/22/13 – 06/28/13 (Family, and, Headed East for the First time in 3 weeks!)

So Ian is giving me the reins here to document  the last leg of our incredible  journey west. For those of you who don’t know me I’m Kassie, Ian’s girlfriend of 7 years. It’s been a long and wonderful relationship although most of it has been long distance but we make it work somehow, I suspect God has a had a big hand in that. : ] Ian and I are alike in many ways and that is probably why we get along so well, one of the best parts of our relationship is we both see God in the creation He has given us and there is nothing we enjoy more than being out in His creation.

I’ll give a similar disclaimer to that of Ian’s, I’m not the best writer or storyteller and I make lots of grammatical and syntax mistakes so please bear with me as this is not my strong suit! :S Also I have a feeling this will get rather long since we have done much in the last week, even if Ian said it would be a short one we’ll have to see how long it gets…

Ian left of last time with our stop at Allyson’s in Corvallis, OR. After that amazing stop we drove the left over 8 hours back to Sandpoint, ID on Friday. Sunday we went to Farragut State Park with Sean, Jada, and Dane. The boys played disk golf while Jada, Dane, and I did some biking and hiking. Dane, Ian, and I also played at the playground in the campground. Dane loves the swings and Uncle Griz!

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That night we had some awesome venison shish-kabobs over the fire, they were a little messy but so good! It was Dane’s first camping trip and he did very well, we did have to drive him around in the car to get him to fall asleep that night but he definitely enjoyed the outdoors and the s’mores! Dane is 17 months, and has been running since he was 10 months!

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The next day, Sunday, it was a rainy morning so we found a picnic shelter to hide under and made a breakfast hash of potatoes, eggs, cheese, and tomatoes. Then we took a couple of short hikes around Lake Pend Orielle before it started to downpour. Ian got nice pictures of a Rufous Hummingbird and a Black-chinned Hummingbird (see chapter 2, http://ianajohnson.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/p6240135.jpghttp://ianajohnson.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/p6230042.jpg) and managed to get this cute picture with Dane before heading back to Sandpoint.

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The next morning we went back to the  Pend Oreille Wildlife  Area Oden Bay, as our last morning birding trip in Sandpoint. Again the little Calliope Hummingbird was guarding his little patch of land and Ian was able to take those amazing pictures in chapter 2 of him (http://ianajohnson.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/p6250012.jpg).

Tuesday we went to Round Lake State Park with Dane and Sean. It was a beautiful little spot. We took the trail around the lake and Ian got some great pictures of a female Goldeneye. i’m not positive if it was Common or Barrow’s they are so similar but here she is with her young of the year. (NOTE FROM IAN: I was walking on ‘solid’ but muddy ground along the lake shore when I went into waist deep mud on the next step. Fortunately, saved the camera!!! :S. Once that happened I decided I enough pictures of the lady with the red head.)

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I was pretty excited when I saw them, never having seen a female Goldeneye, I thought it was some species of duck I’d never seen or a hybrid…  I got Ian pumped up to until Sean ruined my parade after looking at the pictures he knew exactly what they were… Oh well, still nice to see the little family.

Wednesday, It was time to say good bye to the Johnson family and head eastward again. It was a sad morning but also a bit exciting for the next leg of the journey.

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We headed out for Great Falls, MT so we could hit up Benton Lake NWR that night and the next morning. We had a spectacular birding time out there, it was a great site. We saw over 33 species of birds in 2 hours the first night we visited it. Some highlight species for us were Cinnamon Teal, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Upland Sandpipers, Black-crowned Night-Herons, White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, Ruddy Duck, and Marsh Wrens.

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NOTE FROM IAN 🙂 We were treated to an explosive sunset over the hills of the refuge. I, for one, have a preference for sunsets with clouds in them. The oranges, purples and blues were spread for almost 180 degrees.  One last meadow lark was singing for the night silhouetted against the array of colors. Pretty!!!

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The rest of Thursday was spent driving to Washburn, ND.My old stopping grounds. 🙂 When I was a sophomore in college I spent my summer out at Cross Ranch as a Piping Plover Technician through The Nature Conservancy. Ian and I went to the John E. Williams Preserve by Turtle Lake and walked around some of the lakes I did my research at. It was sad to see how high the water had risen this year! There were hardly any areas with enough beach for the plovers to nest. We saw around 10 pairs on one lake that still had some beach left, but only one chick was spotted. I hope next year will be a little easier on these beautiful little birds.

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While the water was too high for plovers it was great for some species of birds I had never seen in this area, a couple of them being Black-crowned Night-Herons (BCNH) and Black Terns. We saw around 30 BCNH in about 2.5 hours! They just kept flying over us from East to West, I’ve never seen so many in my life! Some other noteworthy species were Marbled Godwits, American Avocets, William’s Phalaropes, Willets, Upland Sandpipers, Common Nighthawk, Northern Shovlers, and Northern Pintails.

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**NOTE FROM IAN 🙂 : The common nighthawk flying around in the daylight was a real  treat! on top of just seeing one in the daylight, he complied with picture taking by flying right over head! The red-eyed bird (you can’t miss it!) is an eared grebe. Their red eye was so intense that it was actually really difficult to photograph because of the saturation.

The warning calls from the shorebirds (NOTE FROM IAN: INCREDIBLE), specifically American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Upland Sandpiper, and the cute little Piping Plovers brought me back to a summer of being yelled at as I walked and surveyed these lakes. At times it was a bit much to take in when you are being dive bombed by Avocets but I can say I stood tall and never actually got hit by one of those sharp beaks! (They were all pretty good about flying up at the last second ; ] )

After birding we went back to Washburn and stayed with one of my previous supervisor’s, Chris Gordon.  We stayed up late chatting and reminiscing with Chris and Karen, we had such a great time! The next morning Ian made crepes and Chris took out some walleye civeche which was amazing.  We then had to say good buy as Ian and I headed out to do some more birding this time at TNC’s Cross Ranch Preserve. Before we hit the trails we got to visit with my past boss Eric Rosenquist before heading out. It was so nice to be back in this part of North Dakota, I miss this area with all of its natural beauty, its wildlife, and its down to earth residents. While hiking the trails at the preserve we were hoping to see a Baird’s Sparrow and a Spragues Pipit which have been spotted in the area before but no luck. However, Ian got pictures of a Clay-colored Sparrow and some beautiful Prairie Lilies!

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And finally we hit up the last leg of our journey home, about 5 hours back to Perham. We have about a month to relax (and do some summer school here for me) before we head out to another long road trip but this time to Alaska! (NOTE FROM IAN : Looking forward to the AK TRIP! 🙂  🙂 🙂 )

Thank you all for your time I hope you enjoyed Ian’s amazing photographs! More soon!

Travels to the West: Chapter 2: 06/14/13 – 06/21/13 (From the top of Bonner County, to the Redwoods of California)

Well, it’s been an adventuresome last 10 days! However, I’m actually writing this blog entry on my final night in Idaho. It’s been an unbelievable trip, but Kass and I will be starting back to the East by heading through Benton NWR in Great Falls, MT, Cross Ranch SP and the Little Missouri Grasslands. I’m looking forward to being back. However, without further ado, I’d like to share some of the exciting events, stories and sights from the last week!

Also, a re-note on notes 🙂

NOTE: it’s kinda  long blog entry, but I hope you’ll take the time to read through it all. Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think or what you might like to see for next time!

NOTE 2: I’m not much of a proof-reader when it comes to non-critical things as a blog entry. SO, please ignore and work around any errors. THANKS! 😀

A QUICK NOTE ON THE CALLIOPE HUMMING BIRD, BLACK CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD AND RUFFOUS HUMMINGBIRD

We were fortunate enough to see three species of humers while on our travels.

The Calliope humming bird is one of the smallest migratory birds in North America. Kass and I were fortunate to find this dominate male at Oden Bay Wildlife Management Refuge. I was able to stand very close to this bird has he offered both pictures, memories and insights into the world of a hummingbird! He flew post to post as he staked out his small territory, often fending off other males. He was likely defending a female on eggs. He kind of looks angry, doesn’t he?!

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This full male ruffous hummingbird also sports an incredible throat! And, although less showy, the black chinned is also a very cool bird!

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SCOTCHMAN’S PEAK

Scotchman’s peak is tallest peak in Bonner County, ID and the trail up the mountain was described in our book as “a heartless ascent”. They were right, it was absolutely brutal! A 15 to 20 % grade had my lungs burning as we cooked through the first mile in about 30 minutes. On our way up we encountered Indian Paintbrush. This has been a pretty common flower throughout our trip in the west, however, this was the first time I had taken the opportunity to photograph it.  Its a plant normally associated with open areas, (in this case a sunny, mountain hillside) or more often in prairies.

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One of the mammals that we found on the way up was this little Pika! These little buggers are herbivores and stockpile food throughout the summer. This one didn’t hang around long, but he sure did a nice little pose!

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We were also treated on the way up by this mountain bluebird! He was a big down the slope from us, so you can see how the heat coming off the mountain is warping the bluebird as well as the scenery around it? Although it’s not the best shot of a mountain bluebird, I sure like the artistic effect! The deep blue of these birds was shocking to me. We actually found some great mountain bluebirds at Farragut State Park, so I’ve included this one twisting into a pose on top of a mullen.

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Also on the birds of the peak, you’ve seen them before, but the western tanager is always stunning!!

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Now here is one of the iconic animals of the mountains! The Mountain Goat! These goats are notorious for scaling impossible slopes. When we first reached the top we spotted this one peaking over the edge of the mountain at us. After reaching the summit he walked across this snowy flat (After Memorial Day!!) across the mountain top. COOL!

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After reaching the summit  at ~6800′ we were greeted with unprecedented views of 4 different mountain ranges. Here are panoramas of each of them as seen from Scothman’s. I present to you the tail of four ranges.

The first range is the SellKirk range. These are the distant mountains seen to the north of the Scotchman’s Summit.

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To the south of the summit are the purcells. They are the distant mountains seen here in this panorama.

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The southwest summit was the Monarch mountains. These were the lowest of the surround ranges. Notice, no snow!

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And finally the Cabinet mountains! This range contains the Scotchman’s peak summit. Can’t go wrong with those summit conditions!!

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And finally, to summarize the hike, here is Sean and I on the summit of the peak, overlooking Lake Pend Orielle the the west. I love the old-timey feel of this shot!

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KOOTENAI NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE AND SNOWCREEK FALLS

Kootenai NWR is located about 30 miles out of Sandpoint on route 2. It’s a managed area for mostly ducks and deer, however, we also saw a moose while there!

I think the fledgling Great-horned owl pictured below was the highlight of the birding at Kootenai. Those eyes are intense and beautiful! There was actually a pair of fledgling owls, but the second, which was closer to us, flew off before any pictures could be taken.

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This bald eagle was overlooking the Koonenai river.

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After leaving KNWR we headed to snow creek falls. I will start by saying if you ever get the chance, take it! The trail is tucked back up some gravel roads and is very nice. It leads you through across a hillside about a mile before you arrive at snowcreek falls. There are two falls in this area. The lower, which is in my opinion the more specactular is a misty haven shrouded in green moss. You are able to be right at the waters edge and breathe in the moist air. The sound penetrates through you.

Pictured here is the lower falls, the combination of sunlight, mist and noise (which you’ll have to imagine) was delightful!

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After moving from the lower falls we meandered up to the top were managed to pose for a pretty nice group photo. The top falls were gorgeous, but their primary function was to feed the lower falls and crash onto the rocks below. There is really nothing more mind-clearing than a waterfall! Next time you are at one stand close to it for as long as possible and then report back to me on what was going through your head as the sound resonated in your bones… I’ll be surprised if it was anything!

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TO THE WEST, OREGON, WASHINGTON, THE REDWOODS OF COASTAL CALIFORNIA

Kass and I started on our journey to California by heading to southern Idaho and doing some birding. Pictured here are a western kingbird and mourning dove. I feel like MODOs are underrated. They are really a strikingly beautiful birds. I caught this one in the act of batting her lashes and me and blowing kisses my way. Sorry, MODO,  I’ve already got my chick! 🙂

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After moving on from southern ID I was stunned at the similiarity of the landscape to North Dakota and the Plains regions! There was a fire burning on the distant horizon and windmill spun lazily throughout our drive. Even the dry wheat and grass fields along with grazing cattle in the sage were a famililary sight! Here, we captured a few of the landscapes from our care window.

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And then, after 12 hours of driving, we were THERE! And let me tell you, the redwoods are even bigger than Imagined! Everything is big there. We found horsetail (aka ‘Indian Tinkertoy’) that was above my head! The first were lush and huge and spread throughout the forest. Within the woods was silence, which an important contrast to one of the scenes I will demonstrate later. After walking a ways you were simply dumbstruck the trees that were all around you. Here I’ve climbed up one of the largest trees in Stout Grove and I look like an ant!

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Below is a side view of just one of the ferns throughout the woodlands. And along side of that is a rhododendron. Many people imagine these plants being yard ornamentals, however, they are native to CA, and are very beauiful! They often stand 12-15 feet tall and have many of these large blossoms.

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But, anway, back to the trees. Really, it was all so amazing there I’m having a hard time writing about it without small anecdotes! (ie: fern above) Here are just some more pictures of me trying to convey just how big some of the trees are! These trees are up to 33 feet in diameter and over 2,000 years old. They are able to grow there because of a humid climate which happens to be stable to boot! (of course… that is until CA falls away from the rest of the United States).

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I wedged this penny into the sawed, 3.5 foot diameter section of limb for perspective. These trees DO NOT grow fast! Imagine how many of these rings fit into a 2000 year old tree! Actually, that’s a bit of a joke, because the answer is 2000.

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We also were able to have some fun on one of the fallen trees, which I have dubbed as the “Dance of the Redwood Fairies” :). Note the fairies here are about 15 feet off the ground, so it was no small feet getting them to dance like this! A rare sight, indeed!

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After moving from the redwoods we headed to Crescent Beach for the tidepools. I had been to tide pools in Maine, but I had never seem them like this before! Green anenomes teamed throughout them and star fish hung onto the rocks, waiting for the tide to return. Crabs and small invertebrates crawled everywhere. Hopefully just these two  pictures will speak for themselves here! I wish I had more, however there was a camera debacle. I had the brilliant idea to wrap a ziploc bag around my lens and then submerge the lens under the water for underwater photography. That actually pretty well, but my safety measured didn’t account for a small wave that came over the top of the camera. 5 minutes later I noticed bubbling and oxidation coming from my flashport. OOOOOOHHH NO! So, I turned the camera off, took out the battery cleaned it, said a prayer and put it all back together. When I turned it back on a small black smoke rose from the flash port and there was a singe of burning electronics in the nose. So, with that story in mind, my tide-pooling pictures were cut short!

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One of the most incredible areas (other than the redwoods) that we experienced at the park was the Kalmath River Estuary.This area was teaming with birds and mammal life alike and was a high contrast to the deafening silence of the redwoods. Pelicans, ospreys and cormorants relentless fished for small bait on the incoming tide. However, it was the Stellars Sea lions that were the most incredible to watch! These gracesful and huge mammals were feeding on lamprey (pictured) and other fish. Several times Kassie and I observed them tearing apart large fish by brutally thrashing them on the surface. Of course, if you were a sea lion you wouldn’t have opposable thumbs to grab and pull with, so thrashing would be the only acceptable way to tear apart meat! The osprey were apparently also fishing the lamprey, as one flew overhead with one! The pelicans mouth can hold more than his belly can (like helican!! :D) and this pelican has just come up from a successful dive, see a few of the fish in his pouch??

Also, the black oyster catchers pictured here were a VERY cool bird to see! On top of these amazing animal encounters was a rocky jutting coastline and gray whales feeding and blowing in front of the river mouth!

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One of the well known mammals, which came as a surprise to me, were the Theodore Roosevelt Elk. As the name suggests these elk were transplanted from TNRP (see Chapter 1) into the park to re-establish the populations which had been hunted to extinction. Here are just a couple of the ones that we observed!

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I honestly could go on, and on about our experiences at the park. But, in order to save my fingers, and you a bit of a reading time, I thought I would just do a picture ‘dump’ from some of the other things observed that need little explanation.

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ON OUR WAY BACK THROUGH CORVALLIS OREGON TO VISIT ALLYSON (and BEN!)

On our way back north we stopped by the humble household of a friend and PhD student, Allyson. She was generous enough to take us out birding and show us one of the coolest birds of the trip. The Acorn woodpecker! These birds are known for drilling holes into trees and then stuffing the hole tightly with an acorn as a winter larder. They often need to fend off the squirrels, and the sequences of that can be seen in the new documentary, North America, be sure to check out the episodes on TV, as they are truly stunning!

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Also pictured here are a song sparrow, scrub jay and barn swallow:

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And here we are! The reunion.

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So folks, that chapter 2, hopefully 1 more chapter in the making! I think it will be a shorter chapter, but will include the journey back to MN, and with a little luck burrowing owls!!  I hope you enjoyed!

Travels to the West : Chapter 1 : 06/07/13 – 06/13/13 (Teddy Roosevelt NP, Glacier NP and Idaho)

Since my last entry I have departed from Maine and driven to Minnesota with my dear mother. She was willing to tolerate me (and I her? 🙂 ) on the 1800 mile journey between those two states. After reaching home I spent a few days there before leaving on a sabbatical/vacation/adventure for the west with my Girlfriend, Kassie Pesch. This trip has a few purposes including seeing the west, birding, being a naturalist and visiting my brother in Idaho for a few weeks. I am struggling on the best way to display some of the many images taken on this trip. Group them by location? by activity type? by species? By genera? After a lot of consideration I have decided to display them chronologically or by species groups. I’ve also done my best to show my pictures which I feel demonstrate the region where they were taken.

NOTE: it’s kinda  long blog entry, but I hope you’ll take the time to read through it all. Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think or what you might like to see for next time!

NOTE 2: I’m not much of a proof-reader when it comes to non-critical things as a blog entry. SO, please ignore and work around any errors. THANKS! 😀

TEDDY ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK

Teddy Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) is located in the western side of North Dakota. It can be seen here (MAP LINK). The land is divided into 2 ‘units’. The north and the south.

Spotted Towhee are one of the common birds found throughout the praire lands of North Dakota. Here a spotted towhee is sitting above the painted canyons.

Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee

And, speaking of the Painted Canyons here they are! These are extenstion of the Badlands of South Dakota, to which many are familiar. If anyone every drones on how flat and boring North Dakota is… it’s probaby because they have not been far enough west! These painted canyons are beautiful in any light, but when a sunset or sunrise pours over them the lights up in reds, browns, grays and and greens that twist together into one of the most memorable scenes you can have. These lands are aptly named by the ox-cart travelers. They cannot be farmed or easily traversed.

Painted Canyons, Theodore Roosevelt NP, Panorama
Painted Canyons, Theodore Roosevelt NP, Panorama

Here they are, the mosaic and color of the Painted Canyons! These clay balls become like grease when wet. They colors meld together into the painted landscapes that surround you on all sides as you hike through them.

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This bird is unidentified, however, I just throught it was amazing how big of a meal he was able to find in the wilderness of the prairie. Dinner is served!

Dinner is served! Unfortunately I'm not sure of the species of this bird. But, it's amamzing to think how full his stomach will be!

This American Crow may be one of the most common birds that people remember. They are known for the intelligence and social behavior. This one obviously knew that I was not a threat, and allowed me to approach him quite closely!

American Crow
American Crow

Here are just a couple of the flowers that you’ll find in the prairie and painted canyon lands of North Dakota. The pink flower on the left is a rock rose and the flower on the right is prairie smoke. It certainly is well named. I can see both the red-fire of it’s flower and the smoke of the seeds poking from it!

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Bison are the ICONIC mammal of the plains of ND, WY and SD. These mammals once numbered in herds that numbered in the millions, but were hunted to near extinction by pioneers and settlers throughout the course of the history in the early west. These days there are stable populations of these great animals throughout the plains. However, one thing that is hard to convey in a picture is just how enormous they are! Here, on the left, I’m hoping that the picnic table gives scale to this large bull who was scratching his beard on it. The bull on the left may have been even bigger! He had littler concern for us as we passed by.

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Here are another famous mammal of the canyon lands. The residents of Prairie Dog Town! These rodents are known for colonizing large areas and often spend their days chewing grass. The advantage of being in such a large colony is that many eyes see coyotes, raptors and humans much better than few! The young prairie dogs shown on the left were about half grown. They were always the first do disappear when the warning “CHURRIPS!” were sound across the Town.

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And, since we are on the mammals of Theodore Roosevelt Nation Park here is one the most sought after, mystical and famous. The ‘wild’ horses of the plains. These horses are not truly native, but are feral horses who range throughout the plains eating grasses and raising young. The thought of them being feral doesn’t take away from their beauty! They are often seen at sunset or in the dusky hour grazing in roadside areas. On the left they are shown on a distant ridge-top  silhouetted against the waning sunset. On the right a group of horses are harboring two foals as they graze along.

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There are naturally many birds that are throughout the painted canyons and TRNP. On this trip we did have some that we absolutely wanted to see, and here are a few of them! On the left a red-headed woodpecker browses through its favored cottonwoods. Unfortunately it was an overcast day when this photo was taken, because he’s such a beautiful bird! In the middle a lazule bunting sounds out to all the single females around him, hoping to find a mate. And on the right an orchard oriole sits up in the evening sun. One other oriole not pictured here, but was a ‘lifer’ (one that I had never seen) was the bullock’s oriole. Maybe next time I’m in TNRP  I’ll get the opportunity to take pictures of them!

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The sunrise of over TNRP in the morning was truly a treat, and was a great way to start the end of our stay at TNRP. The fog, sunlight, cottonwoods and canyons were a delightful combination!

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Although tent caterpillars are never a welcome site, you cannot really deny their uniqueness and beauty. Based on the number of tents and emerging worms that were seen I think that it will be a bad year for the trees, but a good year for the birds! I predict it will be a prolific year. My grandmother, Phyllis, once told a story of these caterpillars being so thick when growing up in northern MN that the trains were unable to stop due to the slickness of the tracks! Here the tent worms are shown dappled in the sunlight.

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MISSOURI NATIONAL GRASSLANDS

The Little Missouri National Grasslands (LMNG) are vast, and beautiful. They house many birds and animals. If you have have the opportunity to watch a thunderstorm roll over these plains, be sure you take it and enjoy it! It is powerful to watch the distant rain and thunder arc between sky and land.  Our tour of the LMNG brought out many of the classic grassland birds. Here are just a few!

This marbled godwit was actually a bit pesky! It was so intent on protecting its nest it stood in front of the car and tried to shoo us away. You do not always think about the shorebirds of the Great Plains, but they are there, and plentiful to boot! Another interesting example is included below.

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This is a Wilson’s Phalrope. One of the most interesting things about this bird is that the femals are colorful and the males are drab! In this species the male actually determines which of the females he thinks is the most fit and beautiful! They are a pint sized bird and I believe they are smaller than a robin. Here these two females are shown wading and foraging.

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There are many, many types of blackbirds in the prairie! Here, a yellow-headed black bird looks on while perched on a cattail and a bobo-link trills perched on top of this fencepost. Fence posts are actually a great place to observe many of the grassland birds as it offers them a vantage point for predators and a high visibility location for likely mates to see them. Below are a few more of the examples birds that like to sit high on the posts.

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This horned larked (left) was sitting on his vantage point. I’m not sure if he was just enjoying the sun or watching for predators. However, the savannah sparrow (right) had a purpose for his high post! Sing and show off for the ladies. This sparrow sat on top of his post and quivered his wings sporadically and held poses before signing to anyone would listen. When we departed 5 minutes later he was still intent on wooing a mate!

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Below is another of iconic birds of the grasslands. The eastern meadowlark is known for its beatiful voice and striking yellow breast. They will often sit as high as possible, but are often very skiddish to approaching humans.

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GLACIER NATIONAL PARK

After leaving grasslands of the Little Missouri we were off to Montana and Glacier National Park (GNP) which can be seen at this link here: MAP LINK . Montana is known as the big sky country, and rightfully so! Our trip to Glacier was filled with grand views and grasslands. We skirted to the south of GNP and then came into the west side of the park, where I had never been before. About 8 years ago I had the opportunity to do some backpacking in the east side. One of the great parts of the west side, as I found out, is that many of the roads are maintained as gravel for cultural reasons. The terrains and means of getting to it are rugged. We stayed 2 nights at the Bowman Lake Campground, located on the south end of Bowman Lake (MAP LINK) . I will put in a shameless plug for this area now and say if you get a chance to visit it, please do!!

However, before we made it up to Bowman Lake we had a few other things in Mind. Here, a river rages into the north end of McDonald lake, one of the biggest lakes in West Glacier. Our hike to this spot yielded a varied thrush, a lifer for me! We also had a special duck on the brain when visiting this area. Did we get him?? You bet! See below!

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Harlequin ducks are one of the most unique ducks I can think of. They remind me of clowns. Harlies breed in the river areas of mountains and feed on invertabrates. On the left two males are shown looking for larvae and crayfish. I thought it was simply lucky and incredible to catch this male with his head in the water while looking straight at me. Look at those eye spots he has!! The female in the middle is drab compared to the males, but a very cool duck. On the left a male takes a rest on the rocks in the middle of the river. There was a significant event in GNP in regards to these ducks this year. Biologists now know that they get OLD! In short, a banded duck was found that is a minimum of 17 years old. For the full story you can visit here: STORY OF 17 Y/O HARLIE DUCK

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You have never seen night until you experience it in an area with no lights except the stars! The number of stars in the sky is truly unbelievable. Here, three different starscapes were captured. On the left the starts were captured looking straight up through the ponderosa pines. In the middle the stars are captured looking to the north over Bowman Lake. And in the image on the right an 8 minute exposure shows the celestial movements that never cease!

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The next morning we headed out the the Numa Lookout Fire Tower. The climb to the tower moved up 3000 feet and ended at 6900′. The trail was well graded throughout and I would recommend it to anyone! The view from the top was beautiful, see for yourself! Here, the panorama of the mountain top show as well as a Glacier Lily set to a mountainous landscape in the rear.

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We also found several birds to look at throughout the day. Some of the highlights included ruffous humingbird ( not pictured), pine siskins (left), WESTERN TANAGER, McGillvary’s Warbler, Dark Eyed Junco (oregon phase) and townsend’s solitaire. Of course, of all of these birds the tanager is the visually most stunning! I’m a bit disappointed that the light was so dingy when we saw them, but I think you’ll get the point!

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Our way up and down was also graced with may types of flowers. One of the most dainty and beautiful is the fairy slipper, which is pictured below. Can you imagine a fairy wearing it??!

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Up and down the trail there were also many stalks of bear grass. It looked as though thousands of of tee-balls were stacked throughout the woodlands waiting for a couple of teams of players.

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Were also found a wild form of  clematis , Western virgin’s bower.  Clasping-leaf Twisted-stalk which reminded me of soloman’s seal and the Glacier Lilies, which I’ve featured again.

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Our next morning yielded a foggy, moody morning over the mountains which had been layered in stars just two nights earlier. Again, I can’t emphasize just how breathtaking EVERY moment was here!

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SANDPOINT, IDAHO

And finally, a few of the pictures of the instigation and reason for this trip, family! The reunion of my brother, sister-in-law and nephew is sweet indeed! Here we are on our hike up a portion of Mt. Mickinnick

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On our trip up the mountain we came across quite an array of flowers! One of the most unique to me was the Coral root, shown here.

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And, here, in no particular order, are some of the others! I do know their names, but for now, perhaps just the visual will do?

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So, that’s the first week of my 3 week trip to the west! Please check back in for parts 2 and 3 of this blog which will include conquering the daunting Scotchman’s peak, trips to Kootenaie NWR and to the Redwoods or California! I will leave you with this one last photo of an osprey feasting on a Kokanee salmon in the Kootenai NWR. COOL!

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