yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Blacktail Plateau Drive

Blacktail Plateau 1

Welcome to Disneyland people! This site was another first for me and I certainly hope it’s not my last. Honestly, as soon as we parked our car and started hiking, we had elk bounding across our path and birds were perched on our shoulders singing Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah. I felt like I was in a cartoon. We followed a great horned owl flying from tree to tree along with its tubby two fledglings. This blew me away because I’ve never encountered an owl in the daytime before and a great horned at that!

Our first wetland was occupied by a bison herd so we had to work around them as best we could. They were less than thrilled so they begrudgingly decided to move on about halfway through my survey. This was a bummer for me because everything is better with bison, including field work. As the mass migration was taking place, a few folks on horseback came down into the valley to chat with us while we surveyed. We must really be a site for people to behold. Here they are in the backcountry taking in the beautiful rolling hills of Yellowstone, never expecting to see another human soul, and two little girls with nets and waders pop out from the middle of a bison herd grazing in a wetland. Surprise!!!

Not only was the hiking and the wildlife viewing spectacular, the surveying wasn’t too shabby either. A few of the wetlands were absolutely filled to the brim with salamanders. No complaints there. The last wetland was an extremely large wet meadow comprised of tall, sharp grass which sliced my skin with every net swipe. Not cool. That’s a lot of pain just to find nothing but that’s how the job goes sometimes. The one rather neat thing about that meadow was that the substrate was comprised of itty-bitty fresh water clams. I kid you not. I’ve never seen anything like it in Yellowstone. Until further inspection, they looked like small pebbles. I told my field partner to examine the substrate and she agreed that I wasn’t totally out of my mind. Later, I told my supervisor what I’d seen and in all of her decades working in the area she’s never heard of anything like it. Thus, I’m not sure if someone slipped me some crack or not but at least my field partner was right there with me.

As you will discover from my blog, we survey a lot of Blacktail sites: Blacktail Pond, Blacktail Plateau, Blacktail something-or-other. These areas are in the northern part of the Park which includes a harrowing, pants-pooping trip over Dunraven Pass to get to. Usually, I’m frazzled and in need of medication and new pair of undies by the time we arrive at our destination. It’s certainly worth the trip though.

In all seriousness, this is where the rubber meets the road for climate change. Here, wetland loss is measurable and can be witnessed from year to year. People can argue the causes all they want but unless they have their head completely in the sand, they can’t deny that climate change is happening. This year Andy, Kenda and crew installed some data loggers in a few Blacktail wetlands to measure how rapidly this is all taking place. Time will tell but for now the future remains uncertain for the amphibians in this area. If only it was as easy as gathering them all into a large knapsack and releasing them somewhere safe. One can dream…

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The adult great horned owl in the trees.
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A garter snake sunning and eating all my tadpoles…jerk!
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This fawn and its mama were hanging out on the road as we drove to the site. Look at it scamper. So darn cute! I just want to pinch it! Pinch…Pinch.
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My so-called snake count

I wandered around the property looking for snakes today. It’s not the kind of thing one normally does but it’s not too much of a stretch for me. The idea was to take an inventory of the location, abundance and species of snakes inhabiting the area for the Center for Snake Conservation’s fall snake count. Today was the last day to participate so I wandered around the backyard trails for about 2 hours looking for critters to count. Well, I found a plethora of critters but no snakes– which is a bit of a shock because I usually find them when I’m not looking for them, of course!

On my slither quest I found red-backed (and lead-backed), dusky and slimy salamanders and the red-eft and adult phase of the red-spotted newt. I couldn’t photograph them all because they were just so darn fast! Just so we all know, newts are salamanders with toxic skin and a predominantly water-based life-cycle. Newts generally spend their adult lives in the water whereas most other salamanders are terrestrial as adults (with a few other exceptions such as hellbenders [which are completely awesome!]).  The red-spotted newt has a particularly interesting life-cycle because it starts out aquatic then undergoes a bright-red terrestrial stage called the eft stage and then becomes a light green aquatic adult with red spots. The really interesting part is that red-efts can roam the land for anywhere between 1 to 14 years before becoming aquatic adults. Why and when they decide to finally go back into the water has always been of interest to me. If only I could ask one…

Overall, it was a good day for sallies and seeing them made it well worth the time and effort. For future snake counts, I found some excellent potential sights to check out. From what I’ve seen, I would definitely say that the property is snake heaven. There are abundant wetlands for some tasty amphibious snacks and rocky uplands with a lot of stone fences from the farming days of yore. I took some photos of a few of the spots that I would frequent if I was a snake.

I also found the most charismatic praying mantis. So photogenic…and aggressive! This creature was fully prepared to take me on if necessary.

Enjoy the photos! I hope they encourage you to go outside and turn over some rocks. You never know what amazing things you will find until you get out there and do it!