Monday, July 23, 2012

Road trip to Montana Part I

While Yellowstone is most famous for geysers and wildlife, it has has a rich assortment of wildflowers that bloom in summer so it is a great place to make Project BudBurst observations too!
Project BudBurst was on the road again. This time I (Dr. Paul) went up to Montana from Colorado via all that wonderful country along the Rockies, most notably Yellowstone and surrounding areas. In this part of the country elevations vary so much that the phenological patterns can get pretty complex. So looking at phenology is a great way to appreciate what you are seeing a lot more.

Coulter Bay, Grand Teton National Park, 6772' elev.
We started at 5000' in northern Colorado, but were mostly at 7-8000' in Wyoming, then down to 3,000' in Montana. This is why it is so important to keep track of where you are when you make observations on a trip like this. Between the mapping programs on my cell phone, and the many books and maps we had with us, this was not too hard. At these high elevations we were going back in time to early summer or spring.  Actually the purpose of this trip was run a race in Missoula, Montana on July 8th, but why not have fun, see some good country, and also make some Project BudBurst Single Reports at the same time? 

At low elevations in  Colorado most of the Project BudBurst species had already flowered, and with the intense drought and high temperatures many plants were starting to brown up. Thistles had just started to form fruit, and the lindens had just finished  flowering. Warm season native grasses had just started flowering (western wheatgrass, sand dropseed, blue grama). I was hoping to see a lot more spring or early summer wildflowers up in Yellowstone where the elevations would be more like 7 or 8,000', and they did not have the intense drought that we experienced in the southern Rockies.

Bountiful wildflowers near the summit of Dunravan Pass 8859'
Yellowstone did have lots of spectacular flowers.  Sunflowers, fireweed, goldenrod.  One of the most common Project BudBurst species in flower in Yellowstone was yarrow.  It had started in mid-June in Colorado, but here on the 4th of July it was just starting around Yellowstone Lake. Wild strawberry, white spiraea, pearly everlasting also were just starting to flower. Woods rose was already in full bloom.  Going all the way up to Dunraven Pass, near Mount Washburn it really was like spring. Lupines, balsamroot, wild geranium, they provided a colorful palette of colours for the open grassy areas.

One really surprising thing was the lack of tourists. We had to come through the park on the 4th of July, when you would normally expect things to be super crowded. Not so. Most people assume the issue was people were afraid of fires and smoke. In fact driving by Fort Collins we drove by some big fires, and also around Laramie, WY fires were blowing smoke down into Colorado. This took little way from enjoying our trip. We had nice sunsets, due in part to all this smoke. The smoke took little away from the beauty of this special place, but this country is so big that most of the area was beautiful and clear anyway.

National Parks are a great place to make Project BudBurst observations while on vacation or traveling through.  If you get a chance to visit some at higher elevations it's really interesting to see how different things are from the lowlands. With lots of people visiting, Project BudBurst citizen scientists can help the parks by providing observations that help them learn about how these places are responding to changes in weather, climate, fires and other combinations of human-caused and natural processes. And its great fun too.

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