Thursday, July 30, 2009


Culver Pond in Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge

Yesterday I took off early with Reggie and decided to explore a portion of the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge known as Mac Donald Lakes and Culver Pond. This is a little visited area northeast in the Refuge. A dirt road circles around the lakes to the north side of Red Rock Creek.

Sandhill Cranes flying away from their grazing meadow.

Of course, I took my time getting there as I drove and watched for other wildlife along Red Rock road. The first wildlife I spotted was a pair of the Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) leaving their grazing meadows across from the RedRock RV Park (Island Park, Idaho). This mated pair spends a lot of their mornings grazing there (as Reggie and I know from our morning walks.) Of course, they took off with the loud raucous sounds that only a crane can make.

The fields and meadows are unusually green for this time of year thanks to the unusual amount of rain we've had this season. Although many of the wildflowers are starting to fade, there are still plenty around to make this area bright with color.

Sego Lilies and Lupine at Red Rock Pass.

When I reached the Red Rock Pass, I noticed an unusually large field of the Sego Lily sometimes known as the Mariposa Lily also. Mixed with Lupine and other wildflowers, they made an impressive view. Of course, the Sego Lily (Calochortus nuttallii) really comes into its own when viewed closeup. Some of these are colored light to medium purple.

Across the street larger displays of the Sego Lily were mixed with the beautiful blanket flower, lending a bright red accent to the display.

There were several stands of the Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) along Red Rock road as I descended into the Centennial valley. They are starting to get ragged, but still present a dramatic view everywhere they grow. These grow in clumps on sunny and open meadows all over Montana. The species Gaillardia have many variations of the coloring including red petals. The variety found here are solid yellow petals with a bright red set of disk flowers.

As I entered Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, I turned towards Elk Lake. The road we are taking today turns off of this road.

Mac Donald pond and cattle grazing at the Refuge with Centennial Mtns in the background.

My first view of Mac Donald pond was greeted with a large herd of cattle next to the shore. It's too bad that the cattle have to be here in this beautiful region since they tend to flatten the wildflowers and mess up the pristine creeks and ponds. They are hardly "wildlife." (It's a little bit of irony that I saw them first at Mac Donald pond, given that's where so many of them will end up after fattening up here.)

This Red-tailed Hawk was along the dirt road to Culver Pond.

As I progressed slowly along the dirt road paralleling this pond, I noticed a beautiful Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) sitting atop a nearby post. We stared at each other for a while, I took a few photos and he flew off in search of lunch.

He's off for lunch.

Driving along Picnic Creek (which feeds Mac Donald pond from Culver Pond), I stop at one end of Culver Pond and look around a bit for wildlife and wildflowers. The Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) often hang out in Culver Pond and I was hoping to see some. The Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was established to bring the Trumpeter Swans back from the brink of extinction due to human hunting (for their feathers).

Swans in Culver Pond with West Centennial Mtns in background.

It's not long before I spot a family of five on the far bank of the pond. As I move my camera and tripod a bit closer they head for the relative safety of the water. Swans can live a long time. Trumpeter Swans have been known to live longer than 24 years in the wild, and one individual in captivity lived to be almost 32. This swan is the largest native North American bird when measured in terms of weight and length, and is on average the largest living waterfowl species.

The same swans moving up Culver Pond to escape my threatening presence.

Culver Pond starts in these rocks as an underground spring.

Culver Pond is created from a spring that appears out of nowhere in the rocks up against a forested hill. It's really interesting to see the water coming from under a rock and to know that it feeds this large pond (the pond is over a mile and a half long).

Culver Pond starts as an underground spring near this spot.

I stopped to look at the spring and see if any different wildflowers were in the area. Growing seemingly out of the rocks around the spring is the lovely Yellow Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus). The entire area around the spring has been trampled by cows, taking away from the beauty of this otherwise pristine spot.

Yellow Monkeyflower grows around the Culver Pond Spring.

Flying around the monkeyflowers at the spring was a Weidemeyer's Admiral (basilarchia weidemeyerii) butterfly. They tend to inhabit wet places like this. They are very boldly patterned and a large butterfly.

Weidemeyer's Admiral butterfly at Culver Pond spring.

The road from here goes through sagebrush flatlands. Many badger and ground squirrel holes punctuate this area. Finally, the road ends at the northern bank of Red Rock Creek. An old bridge that would have taken us back to the start of the Refuge has been out for years. At the old bridge site is a dam where water pours loudly across many small branches built up there by the beavers. I walked around the area for a while to see if I could spot any beavers, but alas they are very shy, especially during daylight hours.

Beaver Dam built across Red Rock Creek.

I headed back along the same road. On the way back I spotted a Kestrel (a falcon) flying above us and then swoping down to get lunch in the high grass. Another one was sitting on a fence post nearby. Then I noticed a lone Pronghorn. He noticed us and took off into the hills above Culver Pond.

Young Pronghorn spots us and heads into the hills along Culver Pond road.

As I headed back, I had to negotiate cows crowding the road in the WILDLIFE REFUGE. The rest of my trip to nearby Elk Lake and Hidden Lake will continue in the next blog after I have a great lunch at Elk Lake Lodge.

Cows crowd the road along Culver Pond.


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