Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs

Old Faithful, Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park and the area around it, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is a geothermal system like nowhere else in the world. Situated primarily in the state of Wyoming, this 2.2-million acre expanse is a roiling hotspot.

 

It has at least 10,000 geothermal features. Geysers are the most commonly known geothermal form, like Old Faithful, but there are several different kinds.

 

Travertine Terraces, Mammoth

On the northernmost  border of Yellowstone is Mammoth Hot Springs. Different from erupting geysers, Mammmoth stands out for its travertine terraces.

 

These terraces were formed from hot springs and carbonate deposits over thousands of years.

Terraces and steamy hot springs

 

Beneath the earth, thermal water from the hot springs travels via a fault line that runs through limestone. The water interacts with hot gases and forms a hot, acidic solution; the limestone dissolves into calcium carbonate.

 

Once this water reaches earth’s surface, carbon dioxide is released and the acidic solution forms a mineral called travertine, a chalky white substance.

 

Travertine Terrace

 

The terraces are ever-changing. Over two tons of the acidic solution are deposited here every day.

 

The different colors are a result of algae and bacteria.

 

There are boardwalk paths for visitors to observe the travertine terraces. Between the upper and lower terrace boardwalks are approximately 50 hot springs.

 

Live webcam: Travertine Terraces at Yellowstone

 

Mammoth Hot Springs

 

On the lower flats are the village, slightly left of center in the above photograph; a hotel and cabins, basic park services, Albright Visitor Center.

 

Located about a 1.5 hour’s drive north from the popular spots of the park, like Old Faithful, Mammoth is an isolated and lesser-known area of the park, close to the Montana border. Maps below.

 

Mound Terrace

 

In addition to the terraces, there are also a few formations, like Orange Spring Mound which occurred from a slow water flow and mineral deposits.

 

Orange Spring Mound

 

Inhabitants of the valley include elk, often seen grazing.

 

Elk herd

 

Fort Yellowstone is also here. It was once an Army fort created for establishing order in America’s first national park; the birthplace of the U.S. National Park Service.

 

Mammoth Village

 

In Yellowstone’s fiery and magma-driven corner of the world, Mammoth Hot Springs is a unique landscape well worth exploring.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

More info: Geothermal Areas of Yellowstone.

 

 

 

Map showing location of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone.

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. Courtesy yellowstonepark.com

 

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San Francisco Stairways

Jet at the beginning of the Filbert Steps

As a city famous for many hills, San Francisco has dozens of public stairways that offer stunning, expansive views. In addition, the stairways present terrific photo opportunities and a handsome work-out.

 

I have been on many of the stairways. Here are two–one old, one new.

 

1. The Filbert Steps.

They start at Levi’s Plaza and scale up the east side of a famous San Francisco landmark: Telegraph Hill.

 

Once a 30-foot deep (9 m) dumping ground, the steps today are an attraction for tourists and locals. Fortunately for all of us, in 1950 Grace Marchant moved here and changed things. Along with neighbors and friends over the decades, they got rid of the trash and transformed the land. At one point, two neighbors rappelled down the side of the hill to install plantings.

 

Telegraph Hill is California Historical Landmark #91, and has a rich history.

 

The Hill has an elevation of 275 feet (84 m). From many venues around the San Francisco Bay, it is easy to spot by its also-famous landmark, Coit Tower.

 

Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower (near-center) from SF Bay

 

The stairway has 600 steps.

These steps have a steepness that steals your breath.

 

From Filbert Steps looking up. Coit Tower (center) is the destination.

 

On the  l-o-n-g  way up, while you’re catching your breath, there’s time to turn around and look at the view. San Francisco Bay glitters below.

View of SF Bay from Filbert Steps including the Bay Bridge

As you continue to ascend, the charm of gardens and floral displays takes over.  For a minute you forget about your racing heart and become transfixed by the peace and sweetness of the gardens. Hummingbirds. Rose bushes. Wild nasturtiums. Elegant art deco architecture. There are a few sculptures, a plaque.

 

Filbert Steps

 

If you’re lucky you might also see or hear the raucous wild parrots that grace the skies; we did on a visit here last May. More info: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

Red-masked Parakeets (Aratinga erythrogenys). Photo by Jeff Poskanzer. Wikipedia.

 

For old movie buffs, it is thrilling to know that Humphrey Bogart climbed the Filbert Steps. Bogie and Bacall starred in a 1946 film noir classic called Dark Passage, set in San Francisco.

 

This is Bogart looking pretty raggedy on the Filbert Steps.

That’s what these steps can do to you.

Courtesy Warner Brothers and hoodline.com

 

Once you reach the top, Coit Tower offers panoramic views of the entire San Francisco Bay; inside are recently refurbished Depression-Era murals.

Coit Tower

 

SF Bay view from atop Coit Tower. GG Bridge center.

 

Inside Coit Tower, WPA “California Agriculture” mural by Maxine Albro

 

2. Sixteenth Avenue Tiled Steps

On the other side of town: the mosaic tiled steps on Moraga Street between 15th and 16th Avenue.

Sixteenth Avenue Tiled Steps

Completed in 2005, this stairway, like the Filbert Steps, was also a collaboration among neighbors to beautify their neighborhood.

 

Two neighbors spearheaded the grass roots project, and more than 220 neighbors, as well as local organizations, donors, volunteers, and the neighborhood association brought it to fruition.

Sixteenth Avenue Tiled Steps

Looking at the steps from a distance gives you an overview of the enchanting design, and flanking succulent garden.

 

Then as you climb the 163 steps, you get close-up views of fish, shells, butterflies, and other whimsical subjects.

Mosaic tile of a fish in the sea

 

Mosaic tile of a bat at night

 

When you reach the top and turn around, you are rewarded with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. In a few places, if you look to the north you can also see the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

With over 40 hills undulating through San Francisco, there are many opportunities to visit neighborhood stairways, climbing to great heights for new perspectives of this picturesque city.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

A great book for San Francisco walkers:  Stairway Walks in San Francisco by Mary Burk and Adah Bakalinsky.

Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point, San Francisco, California

 

Hummingbird Fest

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica, Central America

There are approximately 330 species of hummingbirds in the world, they’re found only in the Americas. One of the most remarkable birds on this planet, they are in the Trochilidae family.

 

Some hummingbirds migrate, some do not.

 

In northern California, my home, we have one resident species, the Anna’s Hummingbird, who stays all year long…even when there’s snow.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Northern California

 

Fortunately, we also have the divine pleasure of observing several of the migrating species passing through in spring and autumn. And in tropical countries, there are numerous species any time of the year.

 

They wear a kaleidoscope of colors, and some are especially dazzling. Many have prism-like cells in the top layer of feathers that, through pigmentation and refraction, give the effect of iridescence.

White-bellied Woodstar, Peru

 

Some also have punk hairdos and psychedelic markings, like this male tufted coquette.

Tufted Coquette, male, Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad

 

Not all hummingbirds have the word “hummingbird” in their name. I guess after trying to name 330 different species, they ran out of words. By reading the names of each hummingbird in the photos here, you’ll see what I mean.

 

The booted racket-tail, below, is named for his racket-shaped tail and furry (orange) boots.

Booted racket-tail, Peru

 

Sparkling Violetear, Peru

 

Their unique flight skills out-perform all other birds. They move forwards, backwards, sideways, straight up, and are exquisite at hovering too.

Green Violetear Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

Also, they have incredible speed. North American hummingbirds average about 53 wingbeats per second in normal flight.

Long-billed Hermit, Belize

 

They can dive at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, and average about 20-45 miles per hour in normal flight. They are named for the humming sound created by their fast-beating wings.

Woodnymph in rainforest stream, Costa Rica

 

With special retinas, they can see as they zoom. A hummingbird’s tongue is also noteworthy.

 

If you have good eyesight, binoculars or camera lenses, sometimes you can actually see the tongue extended outside the bill. You may notice how long it is.

Anna’s hummingbird (male) — notice his tongue, California

 

Hummingbirds, and woodpeckers too, require long tongues to extract food. In the hummingbird’s case, they use their long, forked tongue to reach into tubular flowers for nectar.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Belize

 

A recent discovery has revealed that both parts of the forked tongue hold tiny tubes. When the bird unfurls its tongue into the nectar vessel, the tubes open up, draw the nectar, and then lock shot, capturing the liquid for the hummingbird to ingest.

 

The hummingbird’s tongue is so long that it wraps around the inside of the skull.  They have a special bone, called the hyoid apparatus, that guides the tongue to reach over, behind, and under the eye.

Image result for tongue in skull hummingbird

Diagram courtesy of animalia-life.club

We once had a hummingbird nectar feeder that adhered by a suction cup to the window. By standing inside the building and looking out the window at the feeder, we could see the hummingbirds mere inches away. As the bird would drink sugar-water from the feeder, you could actually see the crown of the head pulsate where the tongue was operating.

 

There are more astonishing facts:  Wikipedia Hummingbird.

Male Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

 

They fly like a bullet, glitter like sequins, and dance in the flowers — an avian work of art.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet pair, Peru

Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1899). Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

My Favorite River

Elephants in Chobe River

Our California winter this year has been blessed with abundant rain. As I walked in my neighborhood park last week, I marveled at the numerous rivers and streams.

 

I pondered what my favorite river on earth was, thought about it all week.

 

Rivers traverse all the continents. Over the centuries, cities have been founded on rivers for their power. They support large populations, and carry heavy loads of people and products. Rivers are the basis for the growth of civilization.

 

I have known so many rivers. How could I pick just one? Could you?

 

One favorite at the top of my thoughts: the Chobe River in Botswana. A popular watering place for African game. We watched wild dogs celebrating a kill, elephants crossing, and hundreds of ungulates.

Wild Dogs, Chobe River Nat’l Park, Botswana

 

Chobe River, zebra crossing from Botswana into Namibia

 

Waterbuck, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

Then there is the Zambezi, another favorite. It is immense, and one of its most spectacular features: Victoria Falls.

 

Victoria Falls, Africa

Zambezi River

Zambezi sunset

In Zambia, where the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers converge, we had many lively experiences as we waited for the ferry to cross the river.

Waiting for the ferry at the Zambezi River, Zambia

Zambezi River crossing, Kazungula Ferry

 

And the Luangwa River, a major tributary of the Zambezi, holds the largest concentration of hippos in the world. Native residents share the river with crocodiles and hippos.

 

Hippos and Fishermen, Luangwa River, Zambia

 

 

Folks who fish rivers can read the water like a book.

 

Across the world in South America is the Amazon; we spent a week on the Madre de Dios River, a tributary.

 

It was buggy and humid in Amazonia, almost uninhabitable. I treasured the time we spent cruising this river, for the cool breeze and mosquito relief; and the myriad of wildlife species.

Boarding the boats, Manu, Madre de Dios River

 

Amazon river (near top) and jungle, aerial photo

Red and Green Macaws extracting nutrients from the river wall (photo by B. Page)

I have many favorite rivers elsewhere, too. My home country has so many rich riverways. The Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri, brings frigid waters tumbling down from the Rocky Mountains.

Yellowstone Falls

The Colorado River, the Snake, the Columbia…and many more that I have had the opportunity to behold.

Colorado River, CO

In California, my home state, the Sierra Mountains deliver our highly revered water every day. We talk in winter about the snowpack, and every time officials measure the snow levels it makes all the newspapers, because this is the year’s source of survival. Dozens of rivers transport this liquid gold to us.

Deer Creek, CA; in the Sierra Nevada mountains

Drought and fires haunt us, and we revel when it rains.

 

What about the river of my childhood, the Mississippi? I was born and raised in the Midwest, where the Mississippi is integral. I’ve had decades of adventures on this river’s numerous branches.

 

Horicon Marsh sunset, Wisconsin

 

Could the Mississippi be my favorite?

Mississippiriver-new-01.png

Mississippi River basin. Courtesy Wikipedia.

As I continued to ponder the earth’s rivers, I remembered my times on the Rhine, the Danube, the Thames, the Amstel, and more.

Amsterdam bridge

 

Australian rivers, where I saw the rare Papuan Frogmouth (bird) from a motorboat; and my first wild platypus.

Papuan Frogmouth, Daintree River, Australia

Platypus

As I walked in the park beneath the California oak trees, I heard rambunctious acorn woodpeckers conversing, and red-tailed hawks declaring their territories.

 

I love it that every day the river here is different depending on the light, time of day, precipitation.

 

It is here that I finally got the answer I was seeking. For today, my favorite river is this one…

 

…where my feet are planted, where my eyes take in the ever-glinting movement, and my spirit is calmed by the whispering waters.

Northern California neighborhood park

This funny little river, a stream, really. Quiet, perhaps unnoticed by some, it is a wealth of life and bliss.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise indicated.

Male Kudu, Chobe River, Botswana, Africa

 

Five Minutes with a River Otter

River Otter walking

In January I went to a flooded agricultural field to observe ducks and cranes. At one point there was a curious underwater movement…unidentifiable. We waited, and watched. And a river otter popped out!

River otter swimming in field

 

 

We have been going to this field for three decades, have spent close to 50 hours observing wildlife on this one field. Every winter it is loaded with songbirds, ducks, cranes, raptors, waders, and more…but we have never seen an otter here.

Flooded field with ducks, January 2019. Compare this scene to the photo below from January 2014.

 

We have, however, seen the river otter hunting on a nearby river several times.

River otter with fish. December 2008

 

There are 13 species of otters on earth, and they are all aquatic in nature, feeding primarily on fish and invertebrates. In North America we have the river otter (our focus today) and the sea otter.

 

North American River Otter Wikipedia

 

They are swift in the water, but get around just fine on land too. And its not just rivers they like; they occupy streams, lakes, wetlands and apparently even flooded fields, if they’re wet enough.

 

Carnivorous, river otters not only hunt fish but also a variety of amphibians and invertebrates like frogs, salamanders, clams, mussels, snails, turtles, and crayfish.

 

They have many aquatic characteristics: long, streamlined bodies, short limbs, webbed feet, and more. They can also hold their breath a long time underwater.

 

Coveted for their thick, waterproof fur, both river and sea otters have been heavily hunted by humans for centuries. Their populations declined precipitously in the past, and some species are still in danger.

 

The North America river otter’s conservation status is currently “Least Concern.” Fortunately their population has recovered and can be found inhabiting much of North America. See range map below.

 

If you ever walk along a river and see smooth, narrow mud slides leading into the water, keep your eyes open for a river otter. With short legs and low to the ground, the sleek mammal effortlessly slips into the river.

 

Here is the same field in a drought year. Even with scant water it attracts a lot of migrating and resident winter birds.

Red-winged Blackbirds, Sandhill Cranes, Egrets. Same field, but in January 2014.

For five quiet minutes the otter glided underwater, then came out onto land. Next, the otter scratched its ear with its foot, like a dog. They do this to dry themselves, thereby keeping their fur more insulated. Walked a bit, returned to the water, paddled for awhile, then vanished.

River Otter scratching

Truly one of the day’s biggest thrills.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

I decided I otter include other otters we have observed. These below are the two biggest otters in the world.

 

The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) also lives in North America. We saw this one in the Gulf of Alaska near Seward; and always see them in Monterey and the Bay Area, along the Northern California coast. Popular for photos, playful. They are listed as endangered.

Sea Otter, Alaska

The giant otter, also endangered, is found in South America. We watched three hunting together on an oxbow lake in Peru, not far from the Amazon River. A rare find.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.

LontraCanadensisMap.svg

North American River Otter range map, red is river otter range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Boats on the San Francisco Bay

Sailing past Alcatraz

Although it is relatively shallow, San Francisco Bay has always been an attractive draw to mariners of the past and present.

Sailboat and Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA

The deepest part of the Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge,  goes down 372 feet (113 m). San Francisco Bay Wikipedia.

 

Commercial vessels here include container ships, oil tankers, ferries, pilot boats, tugs, and more. Frequent dredging maintains deep channels.

 

Fireboats operate here too.

Fireboat, SF

Privately owned sailboats and yachts are commonly seen.

 

Quieter inlets invite kayakers, windsurfers, and even paddle boarders to navigate the waves.

Paddle Boarders, Richardson Bay, San Francisco Bay

 

Many hardcore San Francisco Giants fans take the Giants Ferry to AT&T Stadium. And the baseball stadium has a special cove, McCovey Cove, where boaters wait for home run “splash hits.”

 

McCovey Cove, San Francisco

 

For people who can’t stomach the perpetual motion, permanently moored vessels are popular. Historic ships host sleep-overs for school groups or families; and many can be independently toured.

 

A few historic ships I have visited at San Francisco’s Hyde St. Pier in Maritime Park include The Eureka, an 1890 steam ferryboat, and The Hercules, a 1907 steam tug. My favorite is The Balclutha, an 1886 square -rigger.

Balclutha, San Francisco Bay

Retired military vessels are also anchored in this Bay, including the USS Hornet, a World War II aircraft carrier; and the USS Potomac, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential yacht.

 

If you’re tired of being on land and are looking for affordable ways to cruise the waters of San Francisco Bay, there are many fun options.

 

Frequent ferries visit the popular Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz Island

One of my favorite day trips is a round-trip ferry ride to Angel Island, with a hike and a picnic.

Angel Island view, looking out at Alcatraz and SF skyline

 

I also like to go on birding boat charters. Seabirds and sea mammals are abundant in the Bay. A key migratory stop on the Pacific Flyway, San Francisco Bay provides important ecological habitats for hundreds of species.

Gulls and Sailboat, San Francisco Bay, California

 

An elaborate ferry system services commuters in numerous parts of the Bay. These ferries offer a short and sweet boat ride. goldengateferry.org

Ferry boat, The San Francisco, Athena commuting on the top deck

 

San Francisco Embarcadero. Ferry boats center right

 

In December marinas around the Bay are lit with decorated yachts. Parades of lighted boats thrill mariners and landlubbers alike.

Corinthian Yacht Club, Tiburon; Angel Island silhouetted in background

 

Sausalito Boat Parade

 

What is my favorite boat ride so far?

 

I’ve been on many. I love every single boat ride, whether it’s in dense fog and frigid temperatures, or on spectacularly sunny, scenic days. Satiated sea mammals and squawking birds, bracing wind, briny air.

Sea lion relaxing in ecstasy

But my favorite boat ride was last summer, a Fourth of July fireworks cruise.

San Francisco Bay

 

San Francisco Bay

It’s probably not too early to figure how to do that again. No, it’s never too early to plan the next boat adventure on the San Francisco Bay.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

BayareaUSGS.jpg

Bay Area USGS satellite image

(1) Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, (2) Golden Gate Bridge, (3) San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, (4) San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, (5) Dumbarton Bridge, (6) Carquinez Bridge, (7) Benicia-Martinez Bridge, (8) Antioch Bridge. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Wild Cats in Africa

Cheetah, Serengeti

One of the many thrills on an African safari is finding the cats. But like any element of nature, they are not predictable.

Leopards, Zambia

All species in the Felidae family differ somewhat, yet they have similarities as well. Most cats, for example, are solitary and territorial…except the lions who have prides with elaborate social lifestyles.

Serengeti Sunrise, lionness

 

All the felines are carnivores and mainly eat warm-blooded vertebrates. Small cats prey primarily on rodents, birds, and small mammals; while big cats prefer antelopes and other ungulates.

 

But when the opportunity arises, any size cat will hunt and kill whatever it wants.

 

Does this big daddy look like he cares about convention?

Lion

 

Although we often think of the big cats as frightening and formidable, the small cats are also fierce. No creature on the African savannah is soft and cuddly.

 

Wild Cat, Botswana — Ancestor to the Domestic House Cat

 

Cubs were cute, but never to be touched.

 

Lion cubs, Serengeti

 

Felidae Wikipedia

 

Lion at sunset

 

Some cats are nocturnal, others are diurnal. But at mid-day under the ruthless African sun, many of them rest in the shade.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Africa

We always found lions in the morning after they’d had a night of hunting. Often they were nursing cuts or gashes sustained in the night. Usually their bellies were noticeably full, and the cat was sleepy.

 

But we also found them alert and hunting at all times of the day.

 

Lioness, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

 

Lions, like most predators, prey on defenseless baby mammals.  One day we watched with trepidation as a just-born wildebeest calf wandered over to a lioness, thought she was its mother. Wildebeest are not too smart.

 

We watched for 20 minutes as this baby wildebeest pestered the lioness for nursing and care. The lioness, annoyed, repeatedly shirked the baby off.

 

Then eventually the lioness snapped at the wildebeest, chased it, scared it off. But she never once went after it to kill.

 

Lioness and wildebeest calf

 

Leopards, unlike many of the big cats, can usually be found in trees. A cat of great strength, leopards often kill their prey and cache them in trees. With their powerful jaws, they drag the carcass into a tree where they will guard and eat it for a few days.

 

Leopard in tree, Tanzania

But leopards weren’t always in the trees.

Leopard, Okavango Delta, Botswana

 

Cheetahs, the fastest land animal on earth, are usually found in tall grass, stalking.

Cheetahs hunting, Serengeti

They sneak up on their prey, get within sprinting range, and then streak off in dramatic pursuit.

Cheetah with Thompson Gazelle

But one day we came across a pair of cheetahs lazily enjoying the sun on top of this kopje (large rock).

Cheetah on kopje (boulder)

Night game drives often revealed a different world than in the day. But several of what I thought were cats, were not really cats at all.

 

Two cat-like mammals we encountered at night were the genet and civit. They are not, however, in the feline family; they are both in the Viverridae family, more closely related to mongoose.

Large-spotted Genet, Africa

African Civit

 

The cats’ stealth, beauty, and ferocious activities lend excitement to an African safari, but the unpredictability of these wild animals is equally as thrilling. It’s what makes you think at night as you doze off to a distant lion’s roar.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Lion cub with siblings, Botswana

Lioness, Botswana