Steller’s Jay

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Steller’s Jay (Passeriformes: Corvidae: Cyanocitta stelleri) photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

Year-round residents of much of the mountainous west, Steller’s Jays (Passeriformes: Corvidae: Cyanocitta stelleri) are usually found in and around coniferous forests. Mating pairs build nests made from sticks, mud, moss, and leaves high in evergreen trees where they typically raise two to six chicks in one brood per year. They’re one of the most vocal animals in western mountain forests, and in addition to their own songs and calls they also mimic a wide variety of other animals.

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Stellar’s Jay (Passeriformes: Corvidae: Cyanocitta stelleri) photographed 08/15/2014 at North Cascades National Park, Washington.

These generalists forage on the ground for nuts, seeds, berries, insects, and even small vertebrates like bird hatchlings. Near backyards and campgrounds they will also dig through garbage and campsites and sometimes pester people for handouts. I found this individual scavenging for food around a picnic table and fire pit at the Newhalem Creek Campground at North Cascades National Park in Washington last month.

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Random Insect: Darkling beetle

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Darkling beetle (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae: possibly Asidopsis sp.) photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Darkling beetles (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae) make up a large and diverse group of insects, with over 1000 known species in North America alone. Over 20,000 are known throughout the world, and species vary considerably in appearance. I suspect the individual shown here is of the genus Asidopsis, possibly A. opaca.

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Darkling beetle (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae: possibly Asidopsis sp.) photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Although they occur across most of the continent, darkling beetles are particularly common in the west. Many are adapted to arid and semi-arid conditions, and these beetles fill the ecological niche that is occupied by ground beetles (Coleoptera: Carabidae) in areas with more moisture.

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Darkling beetle (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae: possibly Asidopsis sp.) photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Darkling beetles are usually encountered on the ground or under rocks, logs, or bark. The Latin name for this family means “lover of darkness” and these insects often remain out of view, scavenging for food. A few species are known to feed on decaying animals, dung, and fungi, but in general most feed on plant material. Some are also pests of stored grain.

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Mountain goat

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Mountain goat (Artiodactyla: Bovidae: Oreamnos americanus) photographed 08/09/2014 at Glacier National Park, Montana.

Mountain goats (Artiodactyla: Bovidae: Oreamnos americanus) are large herbivorous mammals that inhabit mountainous regions from southeast Alaska through the northern Rockies. In spite of their common name these aren’t true goats (members of the genus Capra), and may be better described as goat-antelopes. Both sexes have thick white coats of hair and thin black horns that curve backwards. Unlike deer they don’t shed their horns, and annual growth rings can be used to determine an individual’s age.

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Mountain goat (Artiodactyla: Bovidae: Oreamnos americanus) photographed 08/09/2014 at Glacier National Park, Montana.

These animals exhibit seasonal migrations between high and low elevations. Throughout the summer individuals are often found alone or in small groups at high elevations, sometimes up to 13,000 feet (nearly 4,000 m). By late summer males begin to compete for females. Instead of butting heads like bighorn sheep, males stab at each other’s sides with their horns. Although thick skin helps protect them, they are capable of injuring and killing one another. By autumn groups of females congregate and accept dominant males, and together they slowly make their way to lower elevations. Greener, relatively snow-free meadows provide sufficient food through the colder months, as well as relatively safe environments in which to breed.

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Mountain goats (Artiodactyla: Bovidae: Oreamnos americanus) photographed 08/09/2014 at Glacier National Park, Montana.

Mating occurs from November through January, and from May through June females are ready to give birth. They migrate back to higher elevations where steep rocky slopes help protect their young from predators. Their main threat comes from mountain lions, but grizzly bears, wolves, and eagles are also capable of killing young, sick, or old goats.

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Mountain goat (Artiodactyla: Bovidae: Oreamnos americanus) photographed 08/09/2014 at Glacier National Park, Montana.

The natural range of mountain goats has been artificially expanded southward through human introductions. In Olympic, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain National Park these animals are considered invasive and are sometimes killed to protect local ecosystems. In these areas mountain goats are undesirable since they can decimate native plant species and introduce diseases to threatened bighorn sheep populations.

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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American bison bull near the Ridgeline Trail. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Theodore Roosevelt first visited the Dakota territory in 1883 and had no idea he was on the verge of a life-changing experience. As a young, urban New Yorker he initially had little on his mind other than bagging one of the last American bison.

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American bison near Beef Corral Bottom. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Along the way Roosevelt established a ranch in what would become North Dakota and developed a respect for the “strenuous life” and “perfect freedom” of the west. He also cultivated an awareness for the negative effects people were having on our few remaining wild areas.  As a result of these experiences he would spend the rest of his life working to preserve American wilderness for all people.

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Painted Canyon photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

From his election to US President in 1901 until his death in 1919, Theodore Roosevelt was a champion of conservation. He helped create the US Forest Service, approved the 1906 Antiquities Act, and established 150 National Forests, 5 National Parks, 18 National Monuments, 51 Federal Bird Reservations, and 4 National Game Preserves. He placed 230 million acres of sensitive land under federal protection and became known as the “Conservationist President.”

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President Theodore Roosevelt and conservationist John Muir standing on Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park, California in 1906.

The area of  North Dakota that Teddy Roosevelt so loved was eventually placed under federal protection itself. First designated as Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area in 1935, this land along the Little Missouri River would ultimately become Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1978.

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Little Missouri River near Wind Canyon. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Today this park preserves Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch as well as two larger north and south units, together covering over 70,000 acres. The area encompasses part of North Dakota’s scenic badlands…

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Badlands near Boicourt Overlook. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

…prairies…

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Prairie from the Ridgeline Trail. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

..and canyons:

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Wind Canyon photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

The wilderness supports a great deal of animal life including American bison…

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American bison near Paddock Creek. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

…feral horses…

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Feral horses near Boicourt Overlook. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

…and black-tailed prairie dogs:

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Black-tailed prairie dog near Peaceful Valley. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Wildflowers are also common on the prairie:

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Aster near the Medora Visitor Center. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

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Knapweed photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

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Unknown flower photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

The national, natural, and cultural significance of Theodore Roosevelt National Park can’t be understated. Combined with the scenic prairies and badlands and the animals and plants they nurture, this park is one of the most uniquely impressive in the country. Although one of the more remote and lesser-known parks in the lower 48 states, I personally consider this park among the best.

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Little Missouri River near Wind Canyon. Photographed 08/08/2014 at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

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Random Plant: Pearly everlasting

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Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea, Asteraceae) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Of about 100 species of everlastings that are found throughout the world, only one is native to North America.  Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea, Asteraceae) inhabits much of the continent and can typically be found in prairies, meadows, and in waste spaces along roads, fields, and vacant lots.

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Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea, Asteraceae) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

This perennial herb grows in small but dense bushes bearing long, narrow leaves that can appear gray-green to off-white. The fuzzy stems terminate in dense clusters of small, yellow composite flowers surrounded by globular white bracts. Flowers begin to appear early in the summer and often persist well into autumn.

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Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea, Asteraceae) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

This plant is an important host for both larvae and adults of the American lady (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae: Vanessa virginiensis) and painted lady (V. cardui) butterflies. Humans also appreciate the attractive dried, white flower clusters for use in floral arrangements.

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Sooty Grouse hen with chicks

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Sooty Grouse hen (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Dendragapus fuliginosus) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

While hiking at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington earlier this month I came across a Sooty Grouse hen (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Dendragapus fuliginosus) with at least three chicks. These birds were foraging among the meadow wildflowers near Paradise Park, seeking out tasty-looking leaves, flowers, and insects to eat. This is one of the largest grouse species in the world, and even the chicks are plump little birds.

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Sooty Grouse chick (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Dendragapus fuliginosus) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Sooty Grouse inhabit the Pacific Northwest from Alaska to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. In the summer they can be found in and around woodlands at a wide range of elevations, but during the winter they stick to lowland conifer forests.

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Sooty Grouse chicks (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Dendragapus fuliginosus) photographed 08/15/2014 at Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

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Devils Tower National Monument

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Devils Tower photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

If you’re like me you first learned about Devils Tower National Monument from the 1977 sci-fi adventure film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Although fictional space aliens helped popularize this location for many people, the natural and cultural features alone make it worth the trek to northeast Wyoming.

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“This means something. This is important.”

Devils Tower is a dramatic feature that rises suddenly from the Black Hills. Reaching nearly 1,300 feet (almost 400 m) above the surrounding land, this monolith represents the eroded remains of an igneous intrusion. During the Triassic Period (250 to 200 million years ago) this area was inundated by a shallow sea. Mud, sand, and silt were deposited along the shifting shorelines, and over time this resulted in thick beds of shale, sandstone, and siltstone.

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Red sedimentary beds of the Spearfish Formation, photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

Somewhere around 50 million years ago tectonic collisions that helped form the Rocky Mountains gradually uplifted this region. Amid the geologic chaos magma oozed upward into the surrounding sedimentary rock. It eventually slowed and began to cool. As this igneous intrusion solidified, it naturally fractured into six-sided columns. Over the last few tens of millions of years the softer sedimentary rock has been eroded, exposing the harder igneous rock at the surface.

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Columnar joints photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

The columnar joints of igneous rock aren’t impervious to natural weathering, however. Water, ice, and gravity have slowly chipped away at Devils Tower, accumulating a dense boulder field around the base.

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Boulder field photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

The impressive nature of this feature has been the subject of human fascination for thousands of years. Since long before the arrival of European Americans, Native Americans have considered this place sacred.

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Native American interpretive sign photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Lakota peoples have various traditional stories relating to the formation of Devils Tower. Many involve people climbing on the big rock to flee a hungry bear who then scratches at the sides to create the vertical scores.

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Native American interpretive sign photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

Today members of these tribes still visit this place to worship, often placing prayer cloths and bundles on the surrounding land.

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Native American prayer cloth photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

The area around Devils Tower is nearly as impressive. Forests of ponderosa pines and oaks blanket the highlands…

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Forest photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

…while pockets of prairie extend into the horizon:

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Plains photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

Devils Tower is a rather enchanting piece of America, harboring geologic and cultural interest as well as natural wonder and beauty. This place is also notable for being the first national monument in the United States, earning protection from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 under the then-new Antiquities Act. It’s certainly worth a visit, especially if your travels bring you to the nearby Badlands of South Dakota.

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Devils Tower at daybreak. Photographed 08/17/2014 at Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

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