yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Week 1

View from my bedroom window
Yup, that is a mound of snow…in June.

Well, having completed my first week of the 2014 field season, I can say that it’s started out in a very unexpected way. First, I swiftly came down with a pretty severe head cold about a week ago, which has seemingly reinvigorated itself today. I think it was a combination of the dust in the air and the musty-ness of the dorm messing with my allergies and then the extreme temperature change throwing my body into a complete tailspin. I went from very warm temps in New York and all the way out here to snow. Yup, snow. That’s not at all unheard of in June but my body did not get the memo. Second, our field refresher sessions have been in the absolute worst weather. I’m talking 20 to 30º with a mix of rain, sleet, hail and snow. We had to completely bail out of Gibbon Meadows one day but not before getting completely drenched and near hypothermic. Luckily, before I ventured out into the field I bought a really awesome coat from the gift shop for super cheap. It completely saved my arse because although I brought enough warm clothes to get by, I failed to bring anything resembling a coat. Yikes!

We were actually supposed to begin surveying Crystal Bench with the other field crew on Wednesday but the weather report looked so miserable (snow, sleet, hail…) that we didn’t do it. We figured that the visibility and the conditions in the wetlands would make it hard to find anything. However, the other field crew managed to hike out there during the storm to install data loggers (they measure wetland temperature and water depth) in a few of the Crystal Bench wetlands with a bunch of helpers from USGS. While they were out there they realized that the sites were teaming with boreal toad tadpoles. They were finding them by the thousands! Compare this to last year when we saw about four toad tadpoles in that wetland complex. Now, before you freak, boreal toad tadpoles prefer thermal waters so they were fine despite the snow. Needless to say, they completed our surveys of Crystal Bench for us and me and my partner were able to scratch that site off our list without ever having to go there. It’s kind of a bummer though because it’s one of my favorite places to survey.

Our field gear.
Our field gear.
The rest of the crew stomping around the wetland trying to calibrate their equipment.
The rest of the crew stomping around the wetland trying to calibrate their equipment.
This black slick is actually zillions of what seem to be fleas. Ick!
This black slick is actually zillions of what seem to be fleas. Ick!

Speaking of boreal toads. I’m convinced they’re hitting it big this year which is fantastic news. They’ve always been found in a few thermal pockets throughout the Park, however, on a larger scale they’re being hit hard by disease. Throughout their normal range, most populations are in decline. And although an estimated 80% of Yellowstone’s frogs have the same disease responsible for mass extinctions elsewhere, the elevation and climate conditions seem to have made it so the toads can either shed or suppress it (researchers are still trying to figure out how they’re doing it). Yup, it all comes down to location, location, location. From our visit to Indian Pond on Monday, and then our brief and unpleasant trip to Gibbon Meadows on Tuesday and then the news from Crystal Bench on Wednesday, we’re seeing them in massive numbers this year. Just in Indian Pond, I’d estimate that we saw a few hundred tadpoles last year whereas we’re talking in the thousands now. The only difference I can think of is that this is a wet year compared to last years drought year but I’m not sure this is the driving force. No matter what the reason, it’s good to see them thriving somewhere.

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: July 18th, 2013

2013-07-18 14.31.00
“Hey, let me down or I’ll eat you like a fly!”

Deb, Andrew and I got an early start since we had no idea what this catchment had in store for us. All we knew of Gibbon Meadows is that Andy and his crew had to stop surveying when they hit a large, confusing wet meadow filled with beaver dams. Needless to say, we were concerned–me especially since I despise wet meadows with the fiercest of all hatreds. Not to mention that there was an entire page of handwritten directions on the easiest way to get into the site. That never bodes well. Last year, Janine and Scot surveyed it for the first or second time instead of Grebe Lake because of the nesting swans. Normally, this and a few other sites are backups in case crews can’t survey one of the regulars for some reason. By the end of the day, we had decided that this site would remain a backup or be turned into a multi-day backpacking trip–but I’m getting ahead of myself.

First of all, I will preface all of the bad by saying that this catchment is absolutely beautiful. The terrain is breathtaking which made the entire event much easier and kept me in good spirits. However, right from the parking lot we had a tough time. The first thing we had to do was ford a river and that meant either doing a perilous circus act by crossing over a skinny log that was high above the water or wading through the river that was nearly above my waders. We all chose the wading and my waders were minimally filled (Deb had to do it twice because she left her GPS in the car). Then it was a half-hour trek through some nice, flat terrain on an animal path. We, of course, encountered a nesting pair of sand hill cranes who amazingly enough did not eat my face off but certainly threatened to do so. One of them kindly escorted us into the forest…the forest of death (or so it felt). This was nearly two hours of hiking through very intense, rugged terrain. To say the least, it was exhausting and brutally hot. On several occasions I stopped for a drink and remarked on how beautiful it all was and Deb–sweet, always cheery Deb–acted astonished and completely disgusted by the place. You know things are bad when Deb isn’t digging it.

Eventually, we made it to the sites in question and we could definitely appreciate Andy’s predicament. The beavers were having a field day in this site. They had built dams every fifty meters or so along the stream, yet we never saw a lodge. Some areas were completely flooded, some were still dry but certainly wouldn’t remain that way for long, there were thermal seeps, and the once dry forests were now dying from the inundation. This wet meadow was an ever-changing landscape that defied our ability to characterize it in a way that would make any lasting difference. Next year, this place would be a habitat completely changed from the one we were seeing–perhaps an even better one for amphibians.

We found some potential sites to survey and even some spotted frog tadpoles to assure us that we were on the right track. Then we continued up the wet meadow for another 200 meters to see if we found any other potential sites.  Basically the entire meadow was either a stream, a wet meadow or a thermal seep. It would take several teams to even come close to completing this survey in a day. Andrew and I met up at the stream and headed back to find Deb. We chatted for a second and then in one fell swoop Andrew scooped up an adult female boreal toad that was hanging out by his feet. He proudly displayed his catch without even skipping a beat in the conversation.  I thought that seeing an adult boreal toad near all of these warm seeps that they love to breed in would be a great indicator of habitat suitability but Deb didn’t seem to think it meant much because they’re known for being impressive travelers. They can cover distances you’d never expect them to. They’re rather Olympic in that respect!

The way out was equally hellacious but Andrew’s quirky conversational abilities and chosen topics kept things light. I ran out of water but luckily Andrew’s steri-pen saved the day. That thing’s magical! Just before the car, I managed to fall into the river while trying to gracefully pounce over some logs. The cool water felt good though, especially on my torn-up feet (I wore the wrong shoes) so there were no complaints from me, just some embarrassment. Enough with the bad though. I will bookend this Gibbon Meadows experience by saying another nice thing: there were relatively few blood-sucking insects. Thank goodness! It may seem like a small thing (pun intended) but a lack of bugs is a major relief after being constantly devoured by them for the past few weeks.

2013-07-18 17.51.35
This is where I fell on the way back.
2013-07-18 17.51.56
He clearly has no problem getting across–unlike me.
2013-07-18 15.20.38
Deb & Andrew happily heading back to the car.
2013-07-18 15.30.03
The trees dying from the beaver inundation.
2013-07-18 14.30.53
Look at that physique!
2013-07-18 14.30.37
An adult boreal toad.

My last night in Yellowstone was spent eating, drinking, and swapping stories in the employee pub with Janine, Scot, Deb and Andrew. This was our last big hurrah of the season. We signed our names on the wall under those of previous amphibian field crew members. This is our lasting legacy…at least until the place is torn down or painted over. Oh, and we played pool and I actually did okay. I love it when I pretend like I can do something well and then the fates align so it looks like I actually know what I’m doing. That rarely happens so I definitely sit up and take notice when it does.  I will miss this place so much. I already do.