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Monday, June 22, 2009

It's summertime...

Summer has finally arrived with sun, blue sky, and a bustle of new life in the mountains. I'm planning a vacation, sans internet, to enjoy summer so this blog will be taking a hiatus. For today, I just have a quick post.

K and I had a easy, almost lazy, ride. We stopped to enjoy the novel feeling of warm sun on bare shoulders. K also skidded to a halt to sniff a humongous columbine - I've never seen her so interested in a flower. I missed the cute sniff but I took a photo of her next to it. What a combination - a beautiful dog and a beautiful flower in a sea of aspen trees!Yesterday, I found a Green Gentian. I had no doubt of my identification because it's so distinctive looking but one detail bugged me. Some of my books said that the flowers have four petals, and one book said four or five petals. Today, during my ride with K, I found the reason for the confusion. The plant that I spotted yesterday had more flowers open. Only the 'crown' flower, perched on the tip-top of the plant, had five petals. All the other flowers had four.When we stopped in a meadow, a new flower had opened: an American Bistort (Polygonum bistortoides). The cylindrical flower was about 1-2" tall, and it balanced atop a tall stem as skinny and flexible as a grass stalk. As a slight breeze touched the meadow, all the snow white Bistort Heads swayed.
After I dropped off K, I saw my second snake of the year (the first was yesterday). I believe he was a Western Terrestrial Garter Snake, the only species that I've ever seen in our montane environment. As it stretched out in the sun, it reached 18" long and luxuriously basked. For a bribe of 10 insects, he let me take as many photos as I wanted. Now, *those* are beady eyes!These snakes survive our cold winters by going into dens up to 3' deep and crowding many snakes into a small cavern. They become dormant, and their body temperature falls to 35-40 degrees, staying just warmer than the critical freezing temperature. They can survive at this temperature without losing too much weight for up to 4 months. A common story is that all the garter snakes in one area emerge, en masse, from hibernation when the first thunder booms.

I enjoyed an awe-inspiring view of wildflowers and still-snowy mountains. I bet that the snow will vanish at light-speed if the lovely weather continues.
I hope that all of you have time to enjoy the bounty and beauty of summer with your families, human and canine. That's what I plan to do.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bear magnet, flycatchers, and a perfect Sunday ride

Boom! Furious barking. I awoke with a jolt of adrenaline at 3AM. A bear had just climbed a supporting pillar and vaulted over the railing of the deck off our bedroom, literally shaking the house. Once the dogs took up their ferocious guard dog roles, it sounded like the bear fled as fast as he could.

At some point during his reconnaissance of our territory, the bear wandered under our bear-proof bird feeding station, and our trusty wildlife camera snapped his photo.I think that he's the same bear who visited recently, based on his brown fur, ample fat layer, and imposing frame.Last night, I don't know how long he stayed after leaving the deck. For what seemed like hours, the dogs continued to burst into frenzied barking and charge at the deck door, invariably just after I'd finally dozed off.

I was glad that we'd moved our bearproof garbage cans out from under the deck because they could have attracted the bear too close to our Cordilleran Flycatcher nest. I have no doubt that this bear will eventually investigate garbage cans, and he'd eat the Flycatchers' eggs if he found them.

Our flycatcher couple just started incubating their eggs yesterday. What that really means is that the female sits on the eggs, and the male sits nearby chirping out moral support. He doesn't even seem to feed her as she patiently warms the eggs. In this photo, the female's tail juts out from the nest. The bottom of our deck acts as a roof just above the nest.Although he doesn't incubate eggs or prepare meals, the male Flycatcher always perches nearby and harasses any dangerous animals, like squirrels or jays, who approach. He's also an agile bug catcher. This morning, I caught a moth stuck inside the house and released him from the deck. As the moth fluttered away, the male flycatcher swooped and snarfed him like a hawk snagging a small bird out of the air.

Today, K and I rolled out into a warm and happy forest. The deep blue sky changed the mood of the forest and mountains from dark and gloomy yesterday to lighthearted and festive today. Moreover, unlike yesterday, no animals lurked in the dark forest to make K or me nervous. We had a mellow ride, just floating along beautiful trails.
Low Penstemon (Penstemon virens) flowers, bluish purple, line this section of trail.
Near our favorite local peak, I noticed that some butterflies have arrived, about three weeks later than usual. I think that our cold and damp weather might have delayed some flower blooming and also deterred the butterflies. Today, a few white butterflies fluttered around the summit. At peak season, butterflies seem to swirl everywhere on this granite outcropping.On the peak, a distinctive flower had just opened its petals - a Green Gentian (Frasera speciosa). This photo shows the top of a 2' tall plant. On its apex, a bud has opened into a full flower but many unopened buds adorn the lower stem.A view from above shows the green color of this odd flower's petals. Each petal has a purplish patch with a tuft of fine hairs. These patches are said to be irresistable to insects.The sideview shows the five stamens with pollen-filled anthers topping them. The central green bulb is the pistil, the female reproductive organ that produces seeds once pollinated. Green gentians live two years, and only reach their full glory, with many blossoms adorning their tall stem, in the second year.
Apparently, the Navajo believed that the leaves of this plant contained strength-giving substances. They'd grind up the leaves and rub the powder on the muscles of hunters and their horses before long expeditions. They'd also smoke the ground leaves to 'clear the mind'. I decided not to leave the beautiful plant intact today although 'clearing the mind' sounded attractive.

K sat soaking up the sun while I photographed the gentian - she doesn't share my flower fascination but always guards my back while I obsessively stare at them. Then, we rolled down the hill, and I dropped K off at home. I felt happy that we'd had a relaxed and fun ride after yesterday's tense one.

I headed out to my favorite wildflower trail. As I rode toward it, I heard a voice call my name from behind. It was a former neighbor who'd returned to our trails for a ride on this beautiful Sunday. We decided to ride together, catching up on a year of news and soaking up the views. It was gratifying to find that, unlike a couple of years ago when I could barely keep up with him, I now naturally ride at the same pace as my friend. Riding almost every day has made a big difference in my fitness although I'm rarely aware of it until I ride with someone else. It was a perfect Sunday ride.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Shadowed by a feline?

This summer day dawned gray - mirroring my mood. Yesterday, I saw S around every corner and called our other dogs by his name. The grief process follows its own pace, with periods of almost smooth-sailing punctuated by nosedives. My mood had taken a nosedive today.

When I feel so sad, I try to do things that usually cheer me up. We went to our favorite viewpoint but found the mountains themselves looking sad with dim skies enshrouding the peaks.
Shortly later, K and I shared a densely forested hillside with a young deer who behaved very oddly. Below, he peeked at us, showing his small velvet-encased antlers.
Oddly, he didn't pronk rapidly away from us but seemed more concerned about something behind him. He moved in our direction, skirting us by descending into a shallow gully. K showed admirable restraint for how closely he passed us. I guess that something behind the deer was scarier than us.

Shortly later, I saw a tan animal moving through the pine forest about 50 yards downhill of us, using a buttery smooth gait, not a bouncy gait like a deer or elk. K responded ferociously, sprinting in his direction while snarling and barking. She returned to me as soon as I called but that event ended the peacefulness of our ride. She spent the rest of the ride obsessed with something that was downhill of the trail but not in sight. She repeatedly (and I do mean *repeatedly*) sprinted snarling in that direction. Each time, I called her and then asked her to heel because I was getting scared. Normally, she's very reliable in following my cues but whatever was downhill had her full attention and led her to bluff charge into the forest.

I have no solid evidence about what had K so worried. I have two shaky pieces of evidence - the tan animal that I saw gliding through the forest earlier and a single twig snap from downhill about 5-10 minutes later. I feared that a mountain lion was paralleling us hidden by the forest.

We came out into a wide open meadow, a place where I felt safe. So, we hung out, standing tall, in the green grass, scanning the meadow edges for a while. All was peaceful with birds singing and pretty mountain views.Unfortunately, we had to cover some of the same terrain on our way home. When we first re-entered the forest, K nearly knocked me off my bike as she streaked snarling toward a gully. After that furious display by K, we had a smooth ride home, although I scanned the forest much more than usual. It would be fair to say that the ride wasn't relaxing.

After dropping off K, I rode in the opposite direction from the 'scary zone' and finally relaxed into riding. I rode a ridge, enjoying the explosion of wildflowers. Despite my sad mood and the gloomy skies, I smiled at this scenery.Our water-soaked weather has encouraged mushrooms to pop up all over the forest floor. I'm astonished that a growing fungus has the strength to move dirt and rocks.I've never seen this type of mushroom over the many years that I've ridden and hiked in our forests. It stood about 6" tall and the cap was about 3" wide. I think that it's Caprinus comatus, an edible mushroom. But, I'd never trust my identification enough to actually eat it, especially since the book says that it can be confused with a poisonous cousin.I notice mushrooms, primarily because, as a young dog, K became obsessed with eating mushrooms. I became equally obsessed with spotting mushrooms before K did, to prevent her from eating them. Fortunately, as a mature Labrador, she now eats only one kind, and it's benign. Thank goodness that she's not in her mushroom-sampling phase now - more odd mushrooms litter the forest floor than ever before.

This living organism also pushed upward through the moist forest duff. I'm guessing that it's a fungus but I have no idea what kind. The taller one was about 4" tall and 1/2" in diameter. I'll watch it over the coming weeks for clues.When I arrived home, I surprised a baby Golden-mantled ground squirrel, who must have just recently ventured out of his den. He's about half the size of his mother but is eating on his own. I know that at least one of my readers would describe him as having "beady eyes" (NCMountainWoman) but I think that he's cute.By the end of my ride, the wonders of nature had distracted me from my internal journey, currently at a nadir, that's been underway since S died. Sometimes, a respite, in the form of a bike ride, is a good thing. Otherwise, the darkness can swallow you whole.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Summer beauty and counterintuitive dog behavior

This morning, K and I rolled through lush green aspen groves with delicate columbines poking their blossoms into the air. At this time of year, I have trouble deciding where to focus - on the tiny beauties or the mountains?The Western Wallflowers glowed with blazing beauty. When I focused on them, I saw that an ant drank their nectar.
But, I didn't want to miss the stunning panorama behind them.
Nor did I want to miss the abundant animals who have been throwing themselves into my path in recent weeks. This view of a snowy mountain towering over a meadow included elk grazing in the meadow until recently. Alas, nearly all of the 100-strong herd have migrated to higher meadows. A few males still linger here and might stay the whole summer. Their fresh tracks pock the mud the woods, and I saw a small group lying in a lush meadow. The photo from today shows our summer residents, grass-fed cattle. In fact, every fall, we purchase one of these grazers from our neighbors and feed the beef to our dogs over the following year.
After our relaxed and easy mountain bike ride together this morning, K basked in the sun, hopefully feeling pleasantly tired.
Although K looks like a classic relaxed dog in this photo, she is not an easy dog to understand. At first glance, she appears assured and outgoing. It takes some counterintuitive thinking to understand her behavior in unfamiliar situations.

For example, as a young dog, K excitedly whined and pulled toward unfamiliar people, especially if they looked at her. I thought that her behavior meant that she wanted to meet the new person. To teach K to greet people more politely, my trainer and I used a standard positive training technique. If K lunged or jumped, the person turned his back and ignored K until she calmed down. This approach had *no* impact on K's greeting behavior. At age 4, she still lunged at new people. I was very confused because I'd seen the same techniques work wonders with other dogs.

Then, I read a book by Brenda Aloff (Get connected with your dog). This book explains that some dogs lunge and jump with the unconscious intent of making an unfamiliar person back away and not pay attention to them. In these dogs, the standard positive training technique for calm greetings actually encourages them to lunge and jump - because the "turn-away" response of the person rewards them.

After reading the book, my trainer and I tried some experiments where we had people walk extremely slowly into K, without any slowing or veering, as K lunged at them. K reacted with a look of utter disbelief - her raucous bad behavior hadn't made the people go away. Then, she immediately backed off or plopped into a sit. For me, her response was the clincher. K's excited whining and lunging at new people rewards her by making people go away. If it doesn't work, and the people keep moving toward her, then K sees no point in doing it.

The problem is that this 'walking into the dog' has to be executed just right. If the person moves too emphatically, K gets scared which ultimately exacerbates the overall problem of fear of strangers. Aloff lays out a program for dogs with K's brand of fearful behavior, most of which I've done with K. It's helped but hasn't completely solved the issue.

In dog-training class this week, K was in a "sit-stay" and looked at a nearby person but didn't break her stay. That's good progress.But, here, K did an exaggerated 'look-away' from the person as she became overwhelmed by the proximity of multiple people whom she didn't know. A lookaway is better than breaking her stay and charging toward them, which she would have done a year ago. But, it shows she still harbors some fear of unfamiliar people.After training class this week, I was chatting with Roxanne from Champion of my Heart when K fixated on a group of young men getting out of their car and starting in our direction. K whined and pulled toward them. My brain was distracted by conversation so I made the easy leap of logic that K wanted to meet them. Roxanne wasn't as distracted as I was. She moved so that she blocked the path between K and the group, and K relaxed. Yet again, K's counterintuitive behavior of pulling toward people whom she feared faked me out.

Understanding a dog, even one whom I share my life with, can be fraught with difficulty for me. I impose my expectations for human behavior in my interpretations of dog behavior. For example, if *I* am scared of a person, I move away from them. I still can't automatically understand that K's reaction is exactly the opposite of mine.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Canine connection and mountain metamorphosis

The sweet scent of flowers overwhelmed my senses as K and I plunged into the forest. A mosaic of colors lined the trails.K led the way, galloping through a meadow and its flashy yellow flowers.Then, she stood next to me and looked searchingly into my eyes. It's an astonishing experience having a canine partner who connects with me like K does. She truly feels like a partner or a sister because we take care of each other.Near the end of our ride, I stopped to check out some new flowers and take a photo of a stupendous view.K took up her customary 'hind-guard' position. Today, she lay down in the shade while watching me. Usually, she sits like a sentinel.I kept riding and riding after dropping off K. Sunny days like today have been too rare here, and I couldn't bring myself to go home. I rode along a moist and shady ledge trail, and I spotted an odd protrusion from the ground - a yellow plant shaped like asparagus. Nothing remotely resembling it appears in my flower books. The remnants of what looked like last year's Pinedrop plant (Pterospora andromedea) sprouted from the ground in almost the same place. Perhaps they share the same root system. That clue made me wonder whether the yellow plants are newly sprouted Pinedrops that will transform as they mature. Can anyone offer any ideas about what this is?
The summertime weather prompted me to look back through my photos to observe the mountain metamorphosis from a winter wonderland to today. By later in the summer, all the snow will vanish, except the remnants of glaciers.

11 May 2009: Thick snow cover that softens the mountain shape and gray aspen groves in the foreground.
21 May 2009: Snow thinner, exposing the sharpness of the peaks and crags.
18 June 2009: Snow receding to reveal the rock-like hardness of the mountain faces. With a careful look, you can see that the green of the aspen groves in the foreground has appeared.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Coyote, bobcat, and bears

We returned yesterday evening, tired from a fun hike, and I craved sleep. However, despite the canines' raucous play on our hike, including wrestling on snowbanks, K and R kept exploding in ferocious barking, staring out the windows, and causing me anxiety. Previously, I'd get excitedly curious about what wildlife was outside when they alerted but, since our intruder incident, I get anxious. I tried peeking out the windows but didn't see much. So, we battened down the hatches to try to sleep. More bouts of barking and growling ensued.

Our wildlife camera gave us two hints about the canine overnight nervousness. First, a coyote hunted under our birdfeeders. That's an almost nightly event.
About two hours after the coyote departed, a bobcat sauntered through the camera's field. A close-up shows that he looks like a tightly coiled spring of muscular energy. His shoulders and haunches bulge with muscle. His front limbs look much bulkier than those of a coyote. His hind limbs appear cocked and ready to sprint or leap. Now, I can see in photographic form why the bobcat who silently sneaked just behind me while I examined a wildflower left me feeling so vulnerable. This cat looks powerful - although I'm fully aware that bobcats don't attack humans. We've known for years that a bobcat visits the area under our feeders, and I saw him a few months ago as I started a pre-dawn wintertime mountain bike ride. I'm guessing that he hunts for mice and other nocturnal rodents foraging for seeds under the feeders. Now that I can spend some time looking closely at the bobcat, I'm not sure whether he or the coyote would win in a fight.

Early this morning, my husband and R started their trail run slightly before K and I rolled out. As I opened the door, K burst into more barking and snarling. Whew, I wondered, what's going on? Then, my husband and R came running back to house, seeming frazzled, just ten minutes after departing. They'd returned home to tell me to stay away from a certain trail.

As they'd run up a trail winding through thick green aspens and shrubs, they'd heard a rustling and then a growl. A hefty mama bear, jet black like a classic black bear, loomed in front of them. Almost simultaneously, they heard the scratching claws of a tiny cub rapidly climbing a Lodgepole pine. Finally, they saw mama bear hightailing it straight uphill, and my husband was almost certain that another tiny cub scurried just ahead of her. He's not sure if the mama bear directed the initial growl at him or at the cubs to hurry them to safety.

R behaved like a champion. He stopped in his tracks, perhaps because he was afraid when faced with mama bear, and my husband rapidly clicked his leash onto his collar. The two of them then retreated carefully, abandoning that trail to the bear family. I feel very lucky that I wasn't on my bike while trying to control two dogs in an encounter like that one. It had all the elements of a dangerous encounter: mama bear and two tiny cubs, dense vegetation preventing forewarning to either party, and the bear family getting separated.

Despite the drama, K and I did take a mountain bike ride, but I kept her in a heel (i.e., just to the side and slightly behind my bike) within about a mile radius of the bear family's last known whereabouts. Bears must be overwhelmingly smelly. K drooled and acted spooky for a lot of the ride. She'd relaxed a bit by the time we visited our favorite spot atop our trail system.
Because the day had dawned fairly recently, the snow on the mountains still had a slightly pinkish alpenglow and NO CLOUDS! We've had a paucity of clear mornings lately.We found one bear digging during our ride, suggesting that our bears are foraging for natural foods, like ant colonies. A bear digging stands out unmistakably. They toss the dirt 5-6 feet, throw heavy rocks, and dig deep holes, usually under rotten stumps. A hole dug by a dog is nowhere near as dramatic.
After I dropped off K, I rode up to a favorite wildflower ridge with never-ending views of the mountains. Oh, what a morning ride!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Getting high

We hiked up high in the wilderness today, reaching almost 11,000'. Being in grassy meadows higher than tree-line opened stunning panoramas. Here's a sampling from our hike.

During the uphill trek, my nephew was full of suggestions for photographs that would "help my blog". Here, he points out a rodent tunnel for me to photograph. He has amazing knowledge about nature for a 6 year old. He and his younger brother can identify almost any animal scat or track. I think that the boys and I share some genes!On the way up, a small pond drew the dogs like magnets. My nephew threw sticks for them. The two raced furiously for the stick and battled for possession all the way to shore. K seems recovered from her minor tick allergic reaction yesterday so she zipped around as fast as R. Once they reached dry land, they joined forces.It was a perfect hike for two young boys because we reached an open vista with breath-taking views without a long hike. Here, my nephew climbs on boulders with snowy mountains close behind him.Our youngest hiker snoozed on the soft grass while the rest of us gazed at the peaks surrounding us. As we enjoyed the mountains, we also shared many happy memories of S. S lived with my brother's family for most of his life before moving to the mountains with us.
One snowy mountain towered just beyond our meadow. Wildflowers, most of them unfamiliar to me, carpeted the meadow. I'll post about those when I learn more about them.Another craggy, but snow-laden, mountain stood out behind a forested hill.The storms seemed to part as they approached us, and we hiked in a moving island of dry and sunny weather. When we arrived back at the trailhead, we saw rain pelting out of the sky below us but sun still shined on us. What a sweet day.