Photojournal - 29 August 2012

Montana dogs

The evening of the 28th was a little more difficult than I would have liked. We arrived in Missoula, Montana fairly late and to our dismay found that the entire town was booked solid, hotel-wise. So we pressed on another exhausted hour or so to Helena, where it took more time than I thought reasonable to find a hotel and ensconce ourselves therein. It was well past two in the a.m. when we finally got to sleep.

We woke late and found an IHOP for breakfast. There I decided that, since I was in Helena (HEL-en-uh, not Hel-AIN-uh), I had to get a handbasket. It also occurred to me that handbaskets would make very nice gifts for friends and family. So Dorothy and I decided to get several.

First we had to determine exactly what a handbasket is. That turned out to be a nontrivial task; the dictionary defintions we pulled from the web were vague on some points. It was clear that a handbasket was a basket with handles—but is it simply that, or is it required that the handles come together in a way that one can hold them in a single hand? After debate, we settled on the stricter definition, and thereby we knew what to look for.

And look we did. We went to several stores seeking handbaskets, but the good folk of Helena didn't seem to share our sense of humour, and handbaskets were hard to find. Eventually, after six or seven stores, we found one that had what we determined were true handbaskets.

Having thus spent more than the entirety of the morning, we departed Helena in the afternoon, headed southeast to Bozeman. In a rare fit of planning, we decided to spend the night in Bozeman, and to proceed into Yellowstone the next day from there.

Aside from an inconvenient bit of road construction, the drive to Bozeman was lovely. Montana is a land of big beautiful landscapes, and we were having a great time watching them go by. It was different for us to see mountains without forests. We pulled to the side of the road around 2:15 because I saw some stuff I wanted to investigate. First, though, here's what the view to the side of the road was.


And that's just a single small slice of the landscape. I took out my fisheye lens to try to catch bigger slices.

The stuff I had seen and stopped for was some strikingly orange substance scattered on the shoulder. I thought that maybe it was clumps of giant Cheetos that fell out of a dump truck of snack food headed for Bozeman. Some of it was squished on the road.


That previous shot I was really happy with. It shows me, my shadow, the Cheetos, the road, the land, the clouds and the sky, all in a nice compact story. I have a book that calls fisheye and wide-angle lenses "storytelling lenses" because of this effect.

But I like fisheye for general landscapes, too. From the same place, I crossed the road to get the next three shots. First, grasslands, mountains, clouds, and that big Montana sky.

And then more of the same, with one of those curved Montana signposts and the road on the far right.  
In this last one, I tilted everything up to make the sky more dominant.  

Back on the right side of the road, I kept my composition more controlled and worked on getting a shot of the Cheetos along with passing vehicles. I had to sit down on the tarmac to get it all in frame at the sizes I wanted and to get the horizon near the center of the photo so as to minimize the appearance of distortion. Then I did what I could to slow the shutter speed down to get motion blur on the traffic.

The result of these efforts is another storytelling photo, where the main elements here are the Cheetos, the road, and the truck. As supporting actors, we have my shadow and the mountains and clouds in the distance.


It took a few shots to get one that I liked. I didn't linger, though, because it was darned hot out there (hot enough that tar from the road melted onto my pants and thence onto the car seat), and because I didn't want Dorothy to get too bored while I was playing with orange blobs.

It turns out that the orange blobs were some sort of styrofoam. I took a piece with me; it had grass and straw and such embedded in it, so it must have encountered those things when it was forming. I imagine it was from some some foam being sprayed on some big item outdoors or in a barn, in order to pack it for moving. In moving, some of the styrofoam blew away.

We drove down the road for another 15 minutes or so, and found ourselves in Townsend. There was a grain elevator right beside the highway, and I find it hard to resist taking photos of grain elevators.


After Townsend we encountered a delay for road construction; we had a stretch of rough unpaved road and some stoppage. Eventually we got back on pavement, and drove for about 25 minutes before pulling off onto a dirt road, just so we could stretch and admire the scenery.

Here are three shots of that scenery; the first two are done with a wide-angle lens (set at 24mm) and the thrid with a long lens (set at 300mm).

The field that we had stopped beside had a big thistle bush by it, and the thistle was a swarm of activity. The bright orange of a ladybug caught my eye.  

Researching at home later, I found that that ladybug is the relatively rare Coccinella novemnotata, or Nine-spotted Ladybug. I would've taken more pictures and been more careful about them if I had known that while I was in the field.

One of the exciting finds was a wasp of a sort I'd never seen before. It had bright orange legs and abdomen, with a black bit at the end of the abdomen. It was nectaring at the thistle.

This wasp is the Great Golden Digger Wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus. Females of this species dig into the ground to lay their eggs. Initially their burrow is vertical, but after it gets down a little it digs chambers out radially, one per egg. The adult nectars for food, but also paralyzes crickets and katydids to place in the burrow for the kids to eat when they hatch.  

They're quite pretty.

The yellow/golden hair on the head and thorax of the wasp reminded me of bees, which are fairly closely related to wasps, anyhow. There were also some bees on the thistle; here's a Honeybee (Apis mellifera) nectaring. I like his stubby little wings.


As we were getting ready to go, I looked down the dirt road and spotted something coming towards us. It was a good 10 meters or so away, but it was colorful, and it was moving hurriedly and with such determination that it was hard to miss. It just kept coming down the road, not stopping for anything. It was moving so fast that I had a very difficult time getting a clear picture of it. And I took about 30 photos of it, so it wasn't as if I didn't try.

It was a furry red ant, and he was late for a very important date.


He was really zooming.

This was a Velvet Ant (family Mutillidae) and with some photoshop tricks I was able to get a slightly clearer if oversharpened photograph.


Velvet Ants aren't Ants (family Formicidae) at all, but their families are in the same superfamily, along with many different kinds of wasps. Differences between ants and velvet ants include sociality; velvet ants are solitary where ants are communal.

He was a really cool find. It was amazing that one stop beside the road in a random place in Montana held all that interesting stuff.

Pretty happy with our sightings, we reembarked and headed to Bozeman, stopping only at a big store that sold local wheat products (flours from their own mill, and baked breads, sweetbreads, and pies). We were on extremely good behaviour there, in that we had only one sticky gooey sugary baked item between the both of us.

In Bozeman we got a hotel room, moved some bags in, and then, since it was still early, we decided to go about an hour or so eastward to visit a park that I had discovered on the maps at home. The park: Greycliff Prarie Dog Town State Park. The very name of it evoked cute little animals running around and "barking" to one another.

As you probably know, I'm a squirrel nut. And prairie dogs are a very social type of squirrel. I'd never photographed any prairie dogs, so I just had to go to this park. Dorothy was kind enough to indulge me the lengthy drive there and back, but she really likes the little nippers, too.

We travelled some very windblown mountain passes, and the car was buffetted back and forth, but we arrived at the park without mishap. It was a small park, and we drove the short road in and parked by some picnic tables. I took my enormo-lens (a Nikon 200-400mm f/4) out of the trunk and set it up on my tripod and commenced the shoot. It was pure joy. There were prairie dogs everywhere.

You see, a dogtown is a town of prarie dogs, composed of many separate family burrows underneath the ground. They can stretch for miles. Prarie dogs tend to hang out at and near the tunnel entrances, alert for predators.

Well, at least some of them are alert for predators. Others just lie around and rub their noses on rocks.  
Here's a typical of them, with several standing and looking out over the grasses. Some of the burrow entrances have mounds of dirt around them; these can be used as observation posts, and they help protect the burrows from flooding.  

These are Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, one of four types of prarie dogs that are present in the U.S. There is one other species in Mexico.

Prairie dogs primarily eat plants, like the following fellow is doing. He had pounced on this little twig like a kitten or puppy pounces on something moving, wringing it back and forth by twisting his head around.

After tugging and chewing on the plant a bit, he lifted up to take a look at me.  
Here's the closest shot I ever got of one of them; he must've been a curious little guy.  
Dorothy and I took to calling them "little dudes" somewhere around here, and used the name for any of the squirrels we saw on the rest of the trip. Here's a little dude standing and chewing something...  
...and here he is remarking on how good it tasted. Yeah!  
Here's a big little dude; maybe this one was an adult and the others were born this year. Anyhow, this one was bigger and seemed more wary and careful than the little little dudes.  
The sun was getting pretty low, giving me nice golden light but also reminding us that we had to be going soon. I took a last few shots with my huge lens, getting a prairie dog casting a long shadow.  
And here, catching a pair of siblings who, just the instant before, had been nuzzling.  

On the way out of the park, Dorothy drove slow and I used my lighter birding lens to get photos of the prairie dogs by the entrance. These ones seemed a lot tamer than the others, perhaps accustomed to people throwing food to them from car windows. We were soon caught in a press of furry mendicant prairie dogs, with them often coming too close for me to even focus the camera on them. It was a pretty funny situation.

Finally, I got a decent picture or two of one of them, and we headed off.


It had been a great evening. When you hang with prairie dogs, life is sweet. I'm sure that last little dude would agree.

Offering handbaskets full of Cheetos,



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