YOHO NATIONAL PARK: Fairy Barf and Squirrel Love

Natural history details observed in the Lake O’Hara area of Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies, including Red Squirrel sex, Fairy Barf lichen, and Map Lichen.

“It’s all in the details.” We say that about contracts, and it is true in nature as well. The grand landscapes are stunning in Yoho National Park, but the details of the landscape are often entertaining and visually fascinating. Here are a few stories and pictures showing some of those wonderful details from hikes that I and my companions took in the Lake O’Hara area.

We had hoped to see one of three species of ptarmigan on our hikes, but we struck out. On our last day in Yoho, we talked about not seeing ptarmigans, and I said we were more likely to see a grouse along the forested, lower elevation trail we were hiking. Within a couple of minutes, I looked up the trail and there was a Spruce Grouse standing right in the trail! It was a male, painted with bright red eye shadow. This species is also known as “fool hen,” because it is rather oblivious to the presence of people. We pointed cameras at it for nearly ten minutes at close range, and the grouse showed little nervousness about us.

Male Spruce Grouse in the spruce-fir forest of Yoho

The day before our grouse experience, we were hiking on the Opabin Plateau, which is a glacial hanging valley populated with Wolverines, Grizzly Bears, and Zen Buddhists–of which we observed only the latter on our two day trips into this valley. But what interested me? Squirrel sex! A lady Red Squirrel sat

Cute Red Squirrel eating seeds from a cone

demurely on a conifer branch, nibbling at a cone and allowing us to approach close enough to get some nice pictures. She was lovely. Then another squirrel appeared, and began chasing our lady ’round and ’round, up and down and around tree trunks, and dashing over the mossy forest floor. Finally he caught her and they mated. Then another chase. Then he caught her again; this time

Whispering into her ear, while she nibbles on a fir cone

she picked up and gnawed on a Douglas Fir cone while mating, as if bored with the whole act. Then another chase. And another mating. She chewed some more on her cone. My female hiking companions finally got tired of watching animal porn; and from then on they refused to point out any more squirrels to me!

Rated R for implied sexuality

I hadn’t realized that fairies lived in Yoho National Park, but we saw evidence of them all the time. Along the trails were little patches of puke, where fairies who nipped a bit too much on the ambrosia of the Canadian Rockies spilled their guts on the morning after. Actually, these patches of puke are Fairy Barf lichens, with plenty of tiny chunks against a bilious green background.

Fairy Barf lichen, Icmadophila ericetorum

We had seen enough lakes at Yoho to realize that nearly every medium sized lake and tarn contained a resident Barrow’s Goldeneye. These ducks spend the waning autumn days at these subalpine lakes, constantly diving for aquatic

Female Barrow’s Goldeneye on a turquoise lake

insects. In the clear mountain lakes, I could watch the goldeneyes as they swam underwater. In fact, the first time I saw one from above, I could follow its trail underwater by the cloud of silt it stirred up as it swam along the bottom. These ducks were only going to enjoy their Canadian Rockies vacations for a short time, since ice would soon seal all of the lakes and tarns; then they would have to fly to their wintering grounds to the south.

Barrow’s Goldeneye caught in the act of diving

Swimming underwater in a clear lake; the goldeneye uses both its feet and its wings during a dive

Popping to the surface

Faint trails in the bottom of the lake, which I believe were made by diving Barrow’s Goldeneyes

A couple of little birds love this high country; two come to mind. The American Pipit enjoys Canada as much as this American, and spends its time searching for food on the rocky shores of mountain lakes. The American Dipper walks underwater along mountain streams and lakes.

American Pipit, which constantly wags its tail up and down while searching the shores of a mountain lake for insects and plant seeds, in nonbreeding plumage

Juvenile American Dipper resting between underwater sessions of searching a stream for aquatic insects; the dipper is named for its habit of constantly dipping up and down by flexing its legs

An American Dipper who really didn’t want its picture taken, hightailing it away from me

Male Fairies in these woods have a poor sense of direction, and would be too embarrassed to ask a mere human for directions, so they’ve created an elaborate system of maps. I didn’t fully understand the maps, but I’m not supposed to, as I am not a Fairy .

Map lichen showing Fairy trails

A more colorful Map Lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum

When we visited Yoho, the wildflowers were essentially done for the year. But seed heads of several species could still be found before the falling of autumn snows covered them for the winter. This included the Western Anemone, which is also known as “Hippie Stick” and “Towhead Baby,” and which has a prominent crown of feathery seeds that reminds humans of hair.

“Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen” (lyric from the musical, Hair)

When we ventured above timberline, we would see rodents that looked like oversized chipmunks, except that the face is not striped like chipmunks. These Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels live in burrows under rocks in the high country, and have learned that humans sometimes leave behind bits of crackers and cheese and nuts–or that these big creatures will sometimes hand them free food, often with strange chuckling sounds coming from their upturned mouths.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel hoping for a handout

We didn’t see any large browsing animals in Yoho, though Elk and Moose are found in the park. The closest we came was seeing this track in the snow, several miles from Lake O’Hara. The details are obscured by the snow, so I cannot say for sure if if was an Elk or a Moose.

Elk or Moose track in the snow, showing dewclaw marks (at the top) which are shown when the large mammal is trotting or running

Below is a gallery of lichen photographs. I don’t recall ever being in a place so rich with lichen diversity. It takes patience to look close and photograph these miniature designs, which consist of a cooperative combination of fungus and algae. I am not an expert at identification of lichens, so if anyone out there in blogland knows more than I do, feel free to identify some of these by genus and species or to correct me.

Goblet Lichens, with the rims of the goblets ringed with tiny ice crystals, reminding me a bit of margaritas

Identification anyone?

Stereocaulon tomentosum

I believe that the taller lichen behind is Cladonia gracilis ssp turbinata

Peltigera neopolydactyla

Identification anyone?

Peltigera sp.

A semi-aquatic lichen photographed on the rocks ringing one of the Morning Glory Lakes; identification anyone?

Finally, we saw a variety of mushrooms on this trip. Rather than try to identify these, I’ll just show them to you for your interest; I especially liked the combination of mushrooms and snow.

This Seattle Mountaineers photography trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore. Yoho National Park is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the Canadian Rockies and perhaps in all of North America. For more information about Yoho National Park, go to the Parks Canada web site.

For other entries in my weblog about Yoho National Park, go to Ice, Wolverine,  Early Snow,  Night at Yoho, and Elizabeth Parker Hut.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

STREAM WALKER: The American Dipper

Dippers make their living feeding in the shallows of western wild rivers and mountain lakes.

Juvenile American Dipper peering into stream for insects

Trout fishermen and trout know that rocky streambeds are teeming with insect life, in the form of mayflies, caddis flies, black flies, and numerous other critters. Dippers know this as well, and make their living feeding in the shallows of western wild rivers and mountain lakes.

I took this series of photographs during a backpacking trip to Melakwa Lake, in the high country not far at all from Seattle. We pitched our tent near a creek connecting the upper and lower Melakwa Lakes, and noticed that there were two American Dippers feeding in the murmuring stream.

This pretty subalpine stream is perfect Dipper habitat

After cooking dinner, we decided to try and photograph the birds. Dippers are not particularly afraid of people, though they like to keep a respectful distance from sweaty backpackers, and we were able to crouch down behind rocks and logs to photograph from perhaps eight feet away. This photo essay shows the birds actively exploring the stream habitats and successfully catching a variety of insects.

One added bonus to dipper-watchers is to hear their lovely song. Unfortunately, the season was late and we only heard a fragment or two of dipper music. Had we seen the dippers during winter or early spring, their effusive songs would have harmonized with the burbling stream.

Dipper exploring the stream

Success means never having to say you’re hungry

A coat of water covers the Dipper in this bizarre photograph

Dippers use streamside rocks to rest and to look for trouble (such as me!)

The camera will sometimes catch the eye as it blinks, showing the white nictitating membrane that serves as a protective layer

Long and powerful legs enable the American Dipper to walk underwater against the fast current

Look carefully to see a black aquatic insect in the bill

Walking down this steep log was tricky; with wet feet, the bird slipped several times

The Dipper spends a lot of time with its head underwater

The young Dipper occasionally looked at me, but without fear

Ready to take the plunge

Dippers are not afraid of fast water, within reason

HARLEQUIN DUCKS: Life in the Fast Current

Female Harlequin Ducks along the Dosewallips River in late spring.


Harlequin Duck

A Harlequin Duck floating through the rapids of

the Dosewallips River– note the “water off a duck’s back”


The Dosewallips River tumbles and roars out of the steep Olympic Mountains in northwest Washington, blue-green as it carries glacial silt from the high country. Nearby the Hamma Hamma, Duckabush, and Skokomish Rivers, also retaining Indian names, emerge with equal thunder from the great Olympic Range.


The Dosewallips has long had a place in my heart. Back in 1990, I camped at Elkhorn Campground, a remote Olympic National Forest campground along the river. The highlight of that trip was seeing Harlequin Ducks for the first time. We observed the ducks resting on the mossy banks of the opposite shore and Dosewallips Riverwatched them zoom past, carried by the fast current. Elkhorn Campground itself was also stunning, with its huge Douglas Firs overhead and light filtering down through Vine Maples along the river.


During the next few years I went back perhaps half-a-dozen times to photograph the Harlequin Ducks. This spring ritual was disrupted when business started taking me all over the country, but in 2009 I was home and able to visit the Dosewallips again.


Karen and I knew that in 2002, the raging river had washed out the Dosewallips Road below the campground during a fierce storm, in which the river changed course and cut deeply into the high bank that once towered above the road. This cut off the Elkhorn Campground and the National Park Service’s Dosewallips Campground a few miles higher on the road. After discussion of alternatives for replacing the road, which would have involved routing a new road through old-growth forest, the agencies agreed to just do nothing, retaining the old roadbed as a trail route.Elkhorn Campground Now Elkhorn Campground is accessible by a 1.5 mile hike around the washout using a steep, switchbacked trail.


We walked the trail in late May; upon reaching the campground we found that the picnic tables were still there, though the pit toilets were closed and the water system had been shut off. Wildflowers and ferns were growing up in old campsites that had not suffered from overuse and soil compaction in the campground’s heyday, so it was actually a lovely place. This would be a wonderful easy backpacking trip for a family, as people can still use the beautiful old campsites along the river.


As we approached the river, I readied my long lens and crouch-walked to the riverbank, using a fallen Douglas Fir to hide my advance. I ventured to look over the log … and right before me, just 15 feet away, were two female Harlequins! I motioned like a soldier in combat for Karen to come up with her video camera, and we photographed without evident concern from the ducks. This was to be the pattern of the rest of the day and on a second day of visiting soon after.


Harlequin Duck

Taking a brief break from foraging in the fast current of the Dosewallips River


The Harlequins were just not afraid of us, as long as we stayed just beyond their comfort zone of about 12 feet. They chatted to each other about the “big, stupid land creatures” that they saw sneaking up.


These two Harlequins were adult females, as far as I could tell, but they did not have young. Perhaps they were adolescent sisters. Farther down the river we observed and photographed a mother Harlequin with two fuzzy young, but here


Harlequin Duck

The mother Harlequin Duck forages with her young along the riverbank


there were no young in the campground stretch of the river. Nor were there any adult males; they may have already left the river to spend the rest of the year on Puget Sound.


My real interest was in getting action shots of the ducks. That was always a real challenge back in the days of 100 ISO film, but now that I use a digital camera, I can work well under more challenging conditions. I spent perhaps ten hours


Harlequin Duck

Even a duck has to take a bath!


photographing the ducks and campground, and the photographs here represent my favorites.  As is often the case, my best photographs were taken while lying on my stomach on the gravel–which gave me a duck’s eye view of the action and a wet and dirty belly.  The combination of ducks feeding in the fast current of an aqua-blue river was wonderful!


Just a few notes about Harlequin biology. These northern ducks breed in the Pacific Northwest, yes, but they are also nesting in Siberia, Kamchatka, Baffin Island, Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland. They winter in Puget Sound, but also in the waters of the northern Atlantic and Pacific coast. They walk along the bottoms of fast streams–much like American Dippers, dislodging insect larvae and catching


Harlequin Duck

A successful fishing trip on the Dosewallips


small fish and mollusks. And they quietly nest along raging streams like the Dosewallips, hatching  six to eight young, on average. We are fortunate that we can see these beautiful birds year-round in the Pacific Northwest.


American DipperAmerican Dipper foraging along the edge of the river



Elkhorn CampgroundWildflowers and ferns are growing in unused campsites in Elkhorn Campground



Harlequin DuckMy favorite photograph of a Harlequin in the rapids



Dosewallips RiverThe Dosewallips River has the aqua-blue color of glacial flour



Sword Ferns and Douglas FirSword Ferns rising around towering Douglas Firs in the beautiful campsites



Dosewallips RiverA stunning wild river, the Dosewallips plunges down its valley toward Hood Canal



Vine Maples along Dosewallips RiverThe Asian design of Vine Maples above the aqua waters of the river



Harlequin DuckPausing for a brief rest between dives in the fast river



Stone CairnI built a stone cairn in the late afternoon reflections on the river

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.