Note: we are now putting prairie photos on flickr! Go to www.flickr.com/photos/rclimontana. Enjoy!
While on a wildflower walk last evening, we found a bit of porcupine scat, easily identifiable from its reddish color (from the color of the pine tree bark) and beads-on-a-string appearance. I had noticed that other rodent scat, especially from prairie dogs, also sometimes has this beaded look, and I had wondered about other differences that would make porcupine scat more distinct. Now that I have had a chance to really look after forming the question, both the size (similar to mule deer) and color made it obvious. What really struck me, though, was that when I tried to break one of the “beads” in half I found that the “string” extended all the way through the line instead of being just a series of tails on the end of each bead. The broken halves of each bead could be drawn back and forth along the center string. One of our walk participants wondered how the digestive system of the porcupine must work to produce this effect. A fun discovery, for sure. In other scat news, a dissected bit of coyote scat revealed a rather large claw, which gave me a bit more appreciation for the defenses of prey animals and what predators have to face even with small prey.
Another particularly striking experience on the same day left me both in awe and, I admit, a bit frightened. As I was following the fireline taking pictures for the photo-documentation record of post-fire succession, I came over the top of a hill (which seems to be always how these things happen) and saw…a herd of bison! I know that our neighbors to the North have had them for a while and have even seen them from Molt Road around the stock pond, but this encounter, where I had been expecting (and observing) nothing more than a grunting pronghorn and a few rabbits, gave me a shock. The prairie seemed a bit less benign and a lot more wild all in one moment. I looked around for the fence, wondering if I had ended up on the wrong side of it, and even when I found the orange-tipped fenceposts I wasn’t much reassured. I calmed down and was able to take a few photos of a scene far more common in the past than it is now. Of course, the bison themselves were both aware of my presence and remained as calm and non-plussed as if I had been a pronghorn or rabbit myself. It was really the unexpected-ness, the spontaneity, of the encounter that made the most difference, far different than a zoo or even watching bison in Yellowstone. It certainly gave me a lot to think about.
Lots of other activity, as well. I flushed a great horned owl in the middle of the day last week; it flew out from a ledge beneath me and I got a rare top-view of it soaring and then watched it land (and watch me) from a nearby tree, its ear tufts and yellow eyes clearly visible. Also, a few weeks ago, two cow-calf pairs of elk were spotted on the west end of the property. The elk have been overwintering for a few years now, so we’ll certainly be watching to see if they have started to calve here. That would be pretty exciting.
Flowers out right now include lots of purple fleabane, white and purple prairie clover, hairy goldaster, Rocky Mountain beeplant, and prairie coneflower (see photos). The berries on the sumac bushes are bright and abundant, reminding me of Christmas holly with dark, shiny green leaves and candy-apple red clumps of fruit (wouldn’t it be great if we referred to candied apples as sumac-berry red instead of the other way around…).