Posts Tagged ‘Rocky Mountains’

Catkins on Aspens


Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Catkins on a Quaking Aspen by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, MT

I always smile at the thought of catkins, one of the sure signs of spring. These delicate two-inch fingers hang from every branch of the Quaking Aspens by my deck, but they don’t last long. I noticed the whitish bits of fluff on Monday. By Friday, the few that remained clung to sporadic twigs like dry, shriveled worms.

A catkin, also called an ament, is actually a skinny, gracefully drooping flower cluster with either very tiny or no visible petals. Its name comes from the Dutch word, katteken, which means kitten’s tail. They look like the tail of a miniature kitty and often feel as soft.

Many trees and shrubs bear catkins in the spring, including birch, alder, willow and hickory, though not all catkins arch downward. In some plants, only the male flowers cluster in catkins (the drooping kind). Others have female catkins, which are usually smaller, rounder, upright and turn into nuts later in the year. In yet others, such as Quaking Aspens, both male and female flowers are in catkins.

Aspen trees are “dioecious”, which means each tree is either male or female, unlike most trees, which are “monoecious” (both sexes occur on the same tree). Both male and female aspens produce catkins in early spring before leafing out. Pollinated female catkins release microscopic hairy seeds in early summer weighing about 1/10,000th gram. If the wind doesn’t quickly deposit the seed on a moist spot with favorable soil and weather conditions – pretty low odds in the Rocky Mountains – it won’t germinate. That’s okay. Aspens propagate mainly by growing new shoots off their root systems.

Do you know other species that proliferate in multiple ways?

Bighorn Sheep


Friday, January 20th, 2012
Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep by Lisa Densmore

Location: Rocky Mountains

Two days ago, as I turned the corner off Highway 191 onto the access road to the Big Sky Ski Resort in Montana, I saw a Big Horn sheep (Ovis canadensis) grazing placidly beside the road. I always look for Bighorns there, and feel cheated if they’ve meandered elsewhere when I come to Big Sky. There’s another dependable herd of them on a hillside west of Denver above Interstate 70. I’ve also photographed butting bighorns atop a 40-foot cliff in Custer State Park in South Dakota.

I’m fascinated by Bighorn Sheep, mainly because of their massive curled horns, the rings of which record their owner’s age. Male Bighorns, or rams, use their signature headgear to vie for dominance in the herd, rearing up on their hind legs and smacking an opponent’s horns with a resounding crash, over and over again, often for several hours. No headaches for the head butters though. Their thick bony skulls usually prevent all but the echo, although a broken horn, nose or more serious injuries sometimes occur if the butt isn’t a bulls-eye. Female Bighorns, called “ewes”, have horns too, but much smaller.

Bighorn Sheep Range Map

Bighorn Sheep Range Map © Audubon Guides

It’s uncanny how an animal weighing over 250 pounds can be so agile on rocky cliffs. A relative of the goat, their split, rough-bottomed hooves grip mountainous terrain with a tenacity greater than a rock climber’s sticky-soled shoes. The ewes give birth on remote ledges each spring to help prevent predation of their lambs by Wolves, Coyotes and Mountain Lions, though Golden Eagles have no problem swooping down for dinner.

The Mountain Cottontail


Friday, December 30th, 2011

Mountain Cottontail by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, Montana

Whenever my sweetheart slams on the brakes, I instinctively reach for my camera. A large animal or raptor deserving of a photo is often the reason for the sudden stop. The other day, as we drove through our neighborhood toward our house, my seatbelt suddenly tightened across my chest, but I couldn’t see any big beasts.

“Over by the red osier,” he said, pointing to a small clump of leafless reddish twigs that sprouted in a haphazard clump from the snow.

I peered intently at the clump catching a slight movement its base. A cute little mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii) crouched quietly, twitching its nose now and again as it peered cautiously in my direction. Sometimes called “Nuttall’s cottontail”, mountain cottontails have rounded, black-tipped ears with fur inside, and tweedy brown fur. The underside of their tail is white. Mountain cottontails also have a distinctive light brown patch on the back of the head and neck, which, along with their smaller size, is a good way to tell them apart from snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus).

Mountain cottontails are a Rocky Mountain rabbit. Their range begins at the foothills on the eastern side of the Rockies and extends west to the eastern side of Sierra Nevadas. They mainly eat grasses which is probably why I often spot them munching contently near my house. I live near a golf course that used to be ranchland. There are still fields around the houses and fairways. The landscaping shrubs give these little bunnies cover from predators and provide another food source when the snow buries the grass. Cottontails spend over 50% of their waking hours eating!

Click. Click. This mountain cottontail was the perfect photo model, still as stone, though I’m sure he was hoping if he didn’t move we would miss him. Perhaps we would have if he were perched on a pile of sticks or beside a large rock, but not against the white snow. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t turn white like his jack rabbit cousin.



Thursday, November 10th, 2011
Jasper Columbine

Jasper Columbine


Location: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

If I had to pick a favorite wildflower, it would be Columbine, but if I had to narrow it to only one species of Columbine, deciding which one among the 50 or so that exist in the world would be impossible. They are all so beautiful! I came across this variety a number of times during the backpacking trip near Banff, Alberta that I’ve written about several times now.

Columbine are members of the buttercup family and are closely related to earlier blooming anemones. While only the red and yellow Aquilegia canadensis, a hummingbird attractor, lives in the East. About a dozen grow in the Rocky Mountains. One of the western species, the lilac and white variety, is called Rocky Mountain Columbine (A. caerules). It is Colorado’s state flower.

Columbine has had a past as colorful as its many varieties. It was once nominated as our national flower, but was disqualified because of an old tradition in which a man is supposed to give his wife a bouquet of columbine if he is unfaithful. It was also mixed into a lotion that was used to treat sore throats. Taking a couple of Columbine seeds with a glass of wine was supposed to speed up childbirth. Some Native Americans ate the roots and brewed a tea from its seeds to cure a fever. The Meskwaki Indians in Iowa used its seeds in love potion. While I don’t buy Columbine’s ability to work as an aphrodisiac, I have fallen in love with this uniquely shaped flower that grows in rugged terrain and comes in so many colors. In addition to this yellow and crimson clump, I’ve seen two-tone yellow, pure white, white and yellow, red and yellow, pink, blue, and purple and white ones. Each seems so delicately form, so lovely and demure with their nectar-filled lobes sitting like a tall crown on top of their bowed heads.

Rocky Mountain Leaf Peep


Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a leaf peeper and a brown creeper. But a fall trip to New England changed all that. Now I know a leaf peeper isn’t a tree with eyeballs or an invasive species. Well, that last part isn’t completely true. Leaf peepers are invasive. Flocking to New England from places like Miami, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the world, they’re not locals. They invade the Northeast with a singular purpose in mind, to view wild lands and rural landscapes when the colors of turning leaves are most varied and vibrant.

Make no doubt about it. For a human possessing even a smidgen of appreciation for the often bold, sometimes subdued tapestry of color and texture of turning leaves, a leaf peep in New England is unforgettable. But although the northern Rocky Mountains don’t draw too many fall tourists who come just to see the leaves, our peep show is nothing to sneeze at. Turning aspens may range in color from fresh-churned butter to fiery orange and even crimson. The large leaves of black cottonwoods take on a bright yellow mantle, the more dramatic for its contrast with their dark, deeply furrowed trunks. Chokecherries line the creek bottoms in colors ranging from orange to ochre. Skunk brush on the hillsides flames brilliant crimson. The leaf show in the West may not rival the sheer scope and drama of that in New England, but I’m still happy to be a peeper, Rocky Mountain style.

Twin Flowered Marsh Marigold


Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Location: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

In terms of distance, it was my biggest day ever in the mountains – 17 miles. The occasion came on the second day of a six-day backpacking trip in the Canadian Rockies. Part of the route on this marathon day traversed alpine meadows on both sides of Jonas Pass, the highpoint between two long ridges of rugged snowcapped peaks. An infinite number of alpine wildflowers speckled the terrain on either side of the path in a multitude of reds, yellows, oranges, purples and whites.

Wildflowers are one of my passions as a backcountry trekker. On this marathon of a day, they helped melt away the miles. I saw quite a few species I had never seen before. As I made my way along the trail, I paused intermittently to photograph each new bloom, including this one, a Twin-flowered Marsh Marigold (Caltha biflora).

Like their single sisters, called simply Marsh Marigold or Elk’s Lip (Caltha leptosepala), Twin-flowered Marsh Marigolds have one to eight-inch leafless stems topped by one white, slightly cupped blossom. Its three-inch-long leaves grow low to the ground around the base of the flower stems. As its name implies, the “twin” has two flowers, and its leaves are much broader, as wide as they are long. The nickname “Elk’s Lip” refers to the shape of the leaf of a Marsh Marigold, the single-flowering kind. If an elk had a lip shaped like the leaves of the Twin-flowering variety, it would have a hard time keeping its saliva in.

Some botanists consider the two types of Marsh Marigolds to be the same species, but I disagree. While the flowers look the same and both grow at wet, high elevations in the West, Caltha biflora has two flowers, not one; different-shaped leaves; and a more northerly range, Alaska south to California and east to Colorado. It is not found in the southernmost parts of the Sierra Nevada, eastern Arizona and northern New Mexico where the Caltha leptosepala is. Do you agree, or should all Marsh Marigolds be lumped together?

Hoary Marmot


Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

By Lisa Densmore
Location: Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

We had just crested Jonas Pass in the Canadian Rockies, 20 miles from the trailhead in the middle of a 60-mile backpacking trip, when an unexpected visitor approached us. The friendly intruder provided an hour of trailside entertainment before we continued on our way. Actually, I approached her first, expecting her to shyly scurry away. I wanted to take her photograph. Turns out, she was more than happy to pose for me, though she had ulterior motives.

My model was a hoary marmot (Marmota caligata). Hoary marmots are so named for the white and gray fur on their shoulders and back, the color of an old sage’s beard. Most live in Alaska, though they also dwell in alpine meadows throughout the northwest including Alberta and British Columbia. In pioneer days, they were called “whistlers” for their high-pitched warning call. Whistler Mountain, which hosted ski events during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, is named after this large rodent, the largest species of ground squirrel in North America. Adults weigh between 17 and 22 pounds and are about 20 inches long.

Hoary marmots hibernate up to 8 months per year in burrows that they dig into the soil around a rocky outcropping. This one surely gets a long winter snooze at Jonas Pass which is snow free only about 3 months per year. They eat grasses and seeds. Mrs. Marmot had also gnawed the shed caribou antler lying on the rock cairn which marked the top of the pass, adding needed calcium and other minerals to her diet. She was apparently lacking salt though and knew a sweaty trekker could provide it. She marched straight to my friend’s pack where she started licking the straps. Then she attempted to lick his shirt. We finally chased her away when she tried to nab a small bag with a camera and my friend’s passport inside it.

Shooting Stars: Fire in the Foothills


Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

In the world of wildflowers, the characteristics of certain species are artfully captured by their name. A common, early-season wildflower in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, such is the case with the shooting star. Technically known as pretty shootingstar (dodecatheon pulchellum), the shooting stars of my vicinity in Montana range from dark pink to intense purple. Five petals sweep upward above the base of the flower, which consists of a tubular yellow projection accented in dark hues of black and brown. It takes little imagination to liken the shape and intense color of this flower to a falling burst of fireworks or a tailed meteorite ablaze in the heavens.

Shooting stars prefer open slopes instead of the flatlands. Sunny, inverted landscapes allow them to compete favorably with taller plants that tend to shade them out on the flats. Their growing season is short. They emerge in mid to late spring and flower quickly. Within a few weeks, their vegetation shrivels and the flower stems dry and die, leaving the plants dormant until the following season.

Certain native tribes admired this flower for more than its loveliness. The Blackfoot Indians soaked the roots and leaves, creating an infusion that was used to treat sore eyes. A similar infusion of the leaves was gargled by children for cankers.

Given a very late start to spring and cool temperatures, shooting stars are still blooming here in the late weeks of June. With a little luck, some of the beauties will persist until Independence Day. If they do, on the evening of the Fourth the flashes of color on the ground will be as pretty as those in the heavens.

Animal Acclimatization


Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

An early storm hammered the east front of the Beartooth Mountains a couple of days ago. After a persistent Indian summer, when temperatures remained unseasonably warm, the thermometer plummeted to the single digits within 24 hours.

For humans living in the northern Rocky Mountains, such frigid temperatures aren’t terribly unusual during the winter. People go about their business, shopping, working and exercising outdoors, even when daytime temperatures never scratch a dozen ticks above zero. However, there’s a definite period of acclimatization. When the temperature plummeted a few days ago, it seemed bitterly cold and miserable. Now it seems more normal and not nearly so uncomfortable. My body has simply adjusted to the new reality.

Out on the fields and golf course near my residence, I often observe whitetail deer going about their business as I attend to mine. Currently, these animals are at their peak condition for the year with healthy coats, robust fat reserves and relatively plenty to eat. However, the day after the storm hit, when temperatures dipped into the single digits, I observed these deer pawing for forage, backs humped, necks bent, creatures clearly suffering from the cold, a perfect picture of misery. The whitetails, it appeared, had similar perceptions to my feelings as I braved the cold in the dash from my front doorway to the car.

Yesterday, though, while out cross-country skiing, I noticed the same bunch of deer, placidly feeding and fawns frolicking in the snow though the temperatures have now dropped below zero. Like the skier watching them, the whitetails appeared much better adjusted to the new conditions. Animals, it seems, like humans, need some time to acclimate to winter.

Steller's Jay


Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Location: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
During a recent visit Rocky Mountain National Park, I hiked the short 1.1 miles to Dream Lake to catch a Greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish. The fishing was slow, and I got bored, so I started looking beyond the water while I waited for the fish to get hungrier. During one random glance along the lake’s rocky shoreline, I spied a Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), a common bird in the Western United States, but rather eye-catching with its triangular crest and rich blue and charcoal coloring.
Named for Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German naturalist who first recorded them in the mid-1700’s, Steller’s jays nest in conifers at elevations below 10,000 feet, and make frequent trips to the forest floor to forage for food, including human food. These brave omnivores gladly scavenge crumbs around campgrounds and picnic areas and will nab other unguarded edibles as well. They’ll also scavenge trash to interior decorate their nests. Without human contact, they dine on nuts, berries, insects and the occasional small amphibian.
Considered a resident bird that doesn’t migrate, Steller’s jays will move to lower elevations when winter sets in. Though the nights are now below freezing at Dream Lake, this one didn’t seem anxious to head down valley just yet. He’ll likely stick around until the hikers and anglers quit for the winter, and snow covers the picnic scraps.