Spring Comes Early To Montana's Centennial Valley (P2)

West Yellowstone, Montana IS known for being the coldest and snowest place - maybe in the lower 48. This makes for GREAT snowmobiling at Elk Lake. But, it can make for slow springs! However, we have been blessed to welcome an early spring this year - and I am enjoying it greatly.

The middle of April saw temperatures which rival June. The sun shone. The grass started turning green. Bird song began to sweeten the air. The lake ice disappeared. We almost had to pinch ourselves to see if we were awake! Can this really be April?

But - we still live in Montana thus we never know what the next morning will bring. Sunshine. Snow. Hail. Rain. Heavy Clouds. Blue Sky. Wind. Dead Calm. Some days manage to pack a full load into one 24 hour period!

Thus many morning excursions have been striped by sunshine and cloud. The top photo I took as I headed north toward Hidden Lake. By the time I reached the top of the hill, the clouds looked to be stacking up against the Madison Range to the north.

The Centennial Valley is famous for its amazing sunsets and wide-open jaw-dropping beauty. However, that long east to west vista also provides a panoramic backdrop for approaching thunderstorms. Thus, on a valley drive last week, I captured this photo of ice-free Upper Red Rock Lake. As menacing as the clouds appeared, they dropped little moisture that day.

That drive into the Centennial Valley provided our first glimpse of Elk. In addition to Sandhills and Curlews and Swans and Raptors and a few Moose, we saw about 50 elk scattered upon the Centennial Mountain's doorstep.

A few days later they began showing up around Elk Lake. A morning jog found four curious heads peering over the rimrock at the strange apparition at the feet. A human? Running for no reason? Weird people!

Spring and late fall, like winter, turn the ground into a perfect medium for 'capturing' tracks. I enjoy the opportunity to see 'who' has been using my trail - even if I do not see them (and sometimes I would much rather see the tracks than their owner!). This small black bear had trod down the trail not more than a day ahead of me. (Note the Sandhill Crane track in the upper left corner.)

Not far from the Black Bear tracks we spotted these five toe tracks. On first inspection we assumed a small Cougar or perhaps a Bobcat (they are about 3 inches in diameter). However, back at home comparing the photo to our track book, we set that idea side. Cats only have FOUR toes. The closest we've come is a Fisher - but they aren't supposed to be in our area so. . .We're open for suggestions!

But tracks are not all I have seen. The little critters are becoming increasingly obvious. Thus one day produced my first chipmunk sighting. . . (he's about the middle of the photo - I MUST start hiking with the zoom lens)

Later that day, while watching a moose browse in the willows, I had a couple of ground squirrels pop up near my feet. Since then, on sunny days, I have spotted these little critters scampering all around.

Of course the bird song sweetening the air has to have a source. Sure enough - more and more birds are showing up in my backyard.

Last year was a tough year on many of the birds. It was the first year in a long time the Rocky Mountain Bluebirds did not fledge a family from their house just outside our dining room window. However, this little lady looks like she is already making plans! Let's hope this is a better year for the birds.

The Sandhill Cranes also suffered last year. In fact, I heard many annual nesting areas were underwater throughout most of their nesting season. Around Elk Lake their haunting cry rarely echoed down the canyon. However, this year has started with a lot more activity - hopefully a good sign!

And, of course, my favorite spring birding spot (the heavy aspens stands) is alive with activity. The Sapsucker in the middle of the photo (yep, no zoom lens) was the first I'd heard or spotted this spring.

Thus as I strolled past serene Narrows Creek pond one morning, I found myself feeling just as calm and rejuvenated as the hillside reflected in the pond's glassy face. Sunshine and returning friends have a way of making me feel that way.

However, in the Rocky Mountains spring is never predictable. It never lets us forget we live at 6700 feet! Thus the next morning I woke to snow! But. . .sure as summer follows spring, the sun will return. And - I'll be ready!

Lady of the Lake

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