Sunday, September 27, 2015

Summer adventures, part 4: Montana trip I

Okay, some time to blog again. This is a picture heavy, text-light post with some pretty fossils, wildlife, and aurorae. After being in New Zealand for almost four years, we made a trip to Billings, Montana, to hang out with Sarah's half of the family. We spent about two weeks there, and got to visit Beartooth Pass, Cooke City, and our eternal buddies Liz Freedman and Denver Fowler while they spent the summer at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta on the high line. First I'll post pics I took with my actual camera; I've got all of my phone pics online still, so the next post will have some of the goofier stuff (and some panoramics).

We hadn't visited Museum of the Rockies in years - in the intervening time, friends of ours had completed their theses and moved on to new institutions. Our friend Jade Simon had finished her master's thesis on giant oviraptorid eggs - Macroelongatoolithus - from the Wayan Formation of eastern Idaho/western Wyoming, and now her key specimen was on display at MOR, shown here. Those are some enormous eggs; Jade was just beginning preparation of them before I graduated from MSU in spring 2011. Jade is now an adjunct (like me!) at Boise State U. in Idaho.

There's now a mounted skeleton of the burrowing ornithopod dinosaur Oryctodromeus cubicularis - described by our undergrad adviser Dave Varricchio in 2007, and studied as part of Jamie Fearon's master's thesis on forelimb digging adaptations. Jamie did some teaching at Luther College and is now looking to start a Ph.D. program.

An oldie but a goodie: the skull and neck of Edgarosaurus, described by former MSU master's student and current curator of the Museum of the North at U Alaska-Fairbanks Patrick Druckenmiller; this is a short necked plesiosaur from the Thermopolis shale of south central Montana.

Another new specimen on display: this is a marine crocodile, Terminonaris, also from the Thermopolis shale near the Pryor Mountains of Montana. I helped dig this specimen up, along with Lee Hall, Mike Knell, Dave Varricchio, Bob Harmon, and of course, the discoverer - Cathy Lash. It's an articulated anterior skeleton, and a total beaut; we nicknamed this "Cathysuchus".

Seen on the beartooth highway - adorable, but this is how you get bubonic plague. And encourage bad behavior.

A trip to Montana always means the possibility of seeing the aurora borealis. Sarah and I were sicker than shit, but we decided to brave a drive up to the rimrocks northwest of Billings to see if we could see anything... and man, was it gorgeous.

We were particularly happy, because we had a solar maximum while living in NZ, but were too poor to have a car, and we lived in an area with 1) a big hill to the south and 2) too much light pollution. So, pretty much everybody else got to see the aurora australis aside from us.

Which is fine, because the aurora borealis is way better. Also, there's just something uniquely montanan about watching the northern lights in a cow pasture.

A toad! This adorable little guy was discovered by Liz Freedman while digging a hole to bury a few bone fragments for a kids dig; she was horrified and thought she had killed it.

A pretty thistle flower.

Once in Malta, the four of us decided to try and do some birding at the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1980's Jack Horner wrote about trying to study pelican nesting grounds as a modern analog of fossil Maiasaura nesting grounds. We couldn't get anywhere close to the pelican island nesting ground, but it was a nice place to visit. Here's an avocet.

And another.

And the closely related black necked stilt.

Both of 'em!

And again.

I couldn't believe I spent 8 years in Montana without seeing laughing gulls, or even knowing they were even around! They're all over the place here in South Carolina, and they do sound hilarious. I love their penguin-like faces.

Can't remember if this is a willet or a godwit, but it's something like that.

We also saw a mother pheasant...

...who thought we were going to murder all of her babies.

How could you murder one of these adorable little guys?

A northern shoveler drake!

And his hen!


An osprey flying over the Yellowstone river near Billings - you can make out the tail of a small fish it caught. It was about 108 degrees out, 4pm in the afternoon, and both Sarah and I had mild fevers. That sucked.


Still majestic.

A black bear and cubs! Eventually we had to say goodbye to Billings and so we took a side trip through Yellowstone on our way out to Idaho and Oregon, and eventually California and a 4th of July celebration at Lake Tahoe.

Some younguns.

 Playful sparring between a calf and a yearling.

A Montana traffic jam.

They're like north american oxpeckers!

Closeup of a bison calf grazing on the side of the road.