Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Great Rift Will Crush You

Oh hey there.  Here I am. I realized I never really posted much, or really anything, about this past field season. That's what this blog is supposed to be all out. Who and what have I become!?  Well, I finally did get to go in the field for a few months so I was pretty pumped. Hayduke, Garfunkel and I lived in a pretty hilarious metropolis of 29 (Twenty-nine, yes) people (not all of them were civilized...) called Atomic City in Southeastern, Idaho.  A pretty comical place to call home for a while.  We dwelled in a wee trailer from year, I dunno, 1987? that had been taken over my mice. I'm really painfully happy I have insurance again and that my hanta virus test came back negative. Holy hell, I was living in fear there for a while. Gross. (Above: Big Southern Butte, where I worked, Johnny Nutcase with the cutest Horned Lizard in all the world; Below: Greater-sage grouse nest that hatched and a view from Big Southern Butte looking into the field sites, me with telemetry equipment)
I tracked sage-grouse with telemetry, looked for the nests, stuff like that. I usually hang out with songbirds and this was a little different. I enjoyed it but the hardest part for me was that it was a ton more driving around than I'm used to, not nearly as much trekking and wandering.  Nest success is unfortunately pretty low with sage-grouse, so that was not an upper. Unlike a lot of people who do what I do, I get out of control emotional and really attached to "my" birds, so it's always a mourning process when a nest is predated, or the babies are eaten, or a female is taken out. Ugh. I take it very personally. I'm not supposed to, but I always will.  That happened a lot this season. Lot of tears on my part. However, one of the birds I was following had a third nest attempt! Which is actually really rare for  sage-grouse, and even more rare that it hatched!....As you may know, the sage-grouse failed to get listed as endangered recently. I'm going to refrain from my (VERY ANGRY) thoughts on that subject because I'm trying to keep this positive tonight. (Below: A hefty, low key, and calm Western Rattlesnake; me with a really sweet, docile gopher snake)
Snakes! Oh man, soo many snakes, which I was thrilled about. I saw almost 35 rattlesnakes!!! in a matter of like, 7 weeks. Excellent! tTons of gopher snakes (good lord, those guys are the sweetest snakes ever), and a handful of olive racers (so beautiful).  I was squat peeing at one point and heard a rattle and oh heeeyyy there buddy, a rattlesnake was about 5 feet from me coiling under some sagebrush. Not the most ideal situation. But no harm done, as usual. I ended up jumping over a couple in the rocks while I was running a few times, but a lot of them I'd see early in the mornings on the dirt roads and would help them get out of the way. and most I'd just see or hear while in the field. I saw tons of rattlesnakes while working in Texas, but I only remember two of them ever rattling at me. The majority of the Westerns I saw in southern Idaho were big time rattlers. Sort of weird. Theories?  (Below: olive racer- these guys are so fast, really hard to get photos of; western rattlesnake right on the Great Rift - there were two others within ten meters of him!; and another laid back gopher snake)
The sagebrush ecosystem is really underrated and doesn't get nearly enough credit. Tons of wildlife  and birds. Big Butte (that big guy jutting out of the sagebrush) was pretty impressive. It's a rhyolitic dome over a million years old (one of the biggest on earth, actually) and is ~7500 feet high, which is pretty gnarly when you think about it.  It has a completely different ecosystem up there (obviously) than all the sagebrush around it.  It's got some huge trees and a pretty thick forest and lots of weird rock formations and many prairie falcons! There were a handful of canyons into/up to Big Butte that made for really fun runs, but I was really easily distracted by snakes and birds and badgers and elk...(Below: view from Big Butte; a healthy elk herd; me at the base of Big Butte- one of my trail runs going up into a canyon. So fun)
The field sites were close to Craters of the Moon National Park, which made things a little interesting at times. Once the nests hatched and the female sage-grouse left the area, they went southeast towards a very strange and bizarre world. I can't really explain it, but it sort of had an unsettling haunted vibe, but not all together bad. While I was tracking one of them, I found a sinkhole sort of thing (no photo, which is a bummer) that was about ten feet by ten feet or so. Upon further inspection, I saw what looked like a lava tube (maybe about 4 feet wide) , which, it probably was because those are common around there. I'm glad I was paying attention to where I was stepping because that thing would have loved to suck me into the core. A mildly frightening experience. I crossed the Great Rift lots of times at the end of the season.  Honestly, really eerie stuff. I love snakes but the rattlesnakes really loved hanging out in the rift or right on the edge. One small slip and you'd be kinda screwed. The drop-off was pretty significant.  This is really out in no-man's land and it took me 2 hours to drive there and no one is ever out there. It's BLM land until it goes into NPS property and there is just not much human activity out there at all (which is how I like it), but those sinkholes and lava tubes and giant weirdo openings in the earth area a little bit disconcerting when you're out there solo.  The Great Rift is an 85 kilometer long (2-8 km wide) rift or belt of fissures, open cracks, cinder cones and shield volcanoes. It's weird. And awesome.  (Below: the ol' Great Rift. Sometimes you could see the bottom. At minimum, it was 20ish feet down, but most places were a lot deeper and darker than that)
Speaking of lava tubes, there is a huge one nearby called Bear Trap Cave.  I checked it out one day while sage-grousing. The thing was pretty massive and has been tracked for about 15 miles. It's a huge lava tube and out in the middle of nowhere. I saw two rattlesnakes while walking into it and a Ferruginous Hawk was roosting there too. I love (LOVE!) caves and rarely get weirded out by them, but this thing made me really uneasy for some reason.  (Below:  Johnny Nutcase at Bear Trap Cave. I was sort of expecting a ghost to show up in the photo. This self timer took about 9 tries, by the way) 
Well then, there you have it. That was a wordy and lengthy bout of stuff but not even near as much as I could have blabbered. All but two of these photos are from a pretty unimpressive point and shoot, since I rarely take my good guy in the field with me. 


The Furry Gnome said...

Sounds like a fascinating field season! Enjoyed all the details.

John @ Sinbad and I on the Loose said...

I thought that was quite impressive being able to jump over rocks with your pants down around your ankles, then I re-read the sentence. Oh, separate instances. I would love to explore the country you were in. I love the sagebrush ocean. The Great Rift looks pretty cool.

Seagull Steve said...

Dude. Looks incredible out there. Sick post.

anw said...

Man, those buttes are beauts.