Thursday, September 3, 2009


Late Summer Trip

Here at RedRock RV Park (near Island Park, Idaho and Yellowstone National Park) there's still plenty to see in nature, even at the end of the abbreviated summer. The grass is starting to turn yellow (though much later than previous years due to the cooler summer and rain we've had). There's even some evidence that the Aspen trees across from the RV Park are starting to think about turning yellow. We haven't had any freezes yet, but some are in the forecast in the next 7 to 10 days. That should start the ball rolling, fall colorwise! I know it's approaching the end of our season here when my shadow is centered on Red Rock Road early in the morning signaling the increasingly southern journey of the sun in the northern sky each day.

There's spottings of more than a normal number of animals across from the RV park due to the change in the availability of food at higher altitudes and the approaching fall weather. A fox was spotted running along the forest here this morning and a doe and two fawns munching grass along with 4 Sand Hill Cranes. Elk bugling is being heard from the RV Park each morning too. The occasional Moose sighting rounds out the start off fall here.

A couple of days ago (at the very end of August) we had an unusual but very welcome late summer storm with more than 1/2 inch of rain falling overnight. That morning, I noticed some very unusual clouds that had formed after the storm passed. The images below document the Mammatus, also known as mammatocumulus clouds, meaning "Mammary" or "Breast " cloud. It is a meteorological term applied to a cellular pattern of pouches hanging underneath the base of a cloud. I've seen these before here, but this was about the most dramatic instance of them I've ever seen. They were very dark and ominous looking. Most of all it was beautiful and added to the joy of being here.

Mammatus clouds near RedRock RV Park.

I then decided to check out the birds at Island Park Reservoir after the storm had passed. Everything was so fresh and clean. There were quite a few birds at the reservoir and almost no humans. That's a good combination for bird watchers. The first interesting bird that caught my eye (and ear) was the Kingfisher. This grayish bird, a bit larger than a blue jay is known for it's fishing habits. They hang out around the dam here. I saw one flying around and occasionally diving for food in the lake. Eventually it landed near me on an antenna mast. I took several photos and finally noticed that it suddenly was opening it's mouth an excessive amount as if yawning. I wasn't aware that birds yawned. I took a few pictures of this behavior and noticed that it had spit something out of it's throat. Upon examining my photos I noticed a large pellet falling from its mouth in one frame. The kingfisher does NOT digest the fish bones but regurgitates them into a pellet. The images below show this behavior in sequence.

Kingfisher regurgitating a pellet of undigested food.

Across the lake, on a sandbar, double-crested Cormorants and Franklin Gulls were congregated, the cormorants airing their wings to dry them. Their raucous sounds punctuated the quiet of the lake. Occasionally, a cormorant would fly overhead, it's bright green eye contrasting with its bright orange beak. It would circle around for a while and then land on the sandbar to join the rest of the crowd.

Cormorant flying overhead at Island Park Reservoir in Island Park, ID.

Cormorants have sharp hooked beaks that allow them to snag small fish while diving underwater. I'll see one go underwater and he will pop up quite a distance away. They are good swimmers. Like the Kingfisher, these birds regurgitate a pellet of undigested bones, usually at dawn each day.

Cormorant resting before the next dive.

Another common bird that I saw on my visit is the Western Grebe. It's a very pretty diving bird with bright red eyes. They are similar to loons. They have sharp beaks that they often use to spear small fish, but they sometimes just grab them with their beaks. They can dive up to 90 feet but more often stay closer to the water's surface, often diving for periods that range from 20 to 60 seconds in length.

Red-eyed Western Grebe at Island Park Reservoir

Sitting on the shore was also the ever present Great Blue Heron. Unlike the diving Cormorant, these birds like to stand on the shore or in shallow water and quickly pick up any small fish that goes by. They can move their long neck extremely fast to pick up a fish or small invertebrate. I've seen them swallow some pretty large fish (12 to 14" in length).

Great Blue Heron at Island Park Reservoir.

Back at the RV Park, the ever present Swainson's Hawk's were circling overhead looking for small rodents. It's rare to go out and look up and not see one or more circling within a few minutes time. These guys are getting ready to head to Argentina for the winter, so they are filling up on food as quickly as possible.

Swainson's Hawk circling over RedRock RV Park in Island Park, Idaho.

There's still time to plan your September visit to RedRock RV Park to enjoy the fall colors, the bugling Elk, and the other wildlife getting ready for winter. (It comes early to this part of the country.)

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